A new kind of war coverage - so far, a plus for viewers

Reality TV has come to the Iraq war and so far it is a plus for the viewers.

More than 500 journalists are "embedded" with American and allied military units. The TV reporters are providing remarkable live coverage not only to American networks and stations, but also to non-American news organizations ranging from the Middle East network Al Jazeera to government broadcasting operations in Beijing and Moscow.

Print journalists have a long tradition of covering wars in foreign places, but moving picture coverage is relatively recent, and till now there has been nothing as instant and far ranging as we are seeing from Iraq.

Correspondents accompanied allied units in World War II, but bulky movie cameras were tardy in providing newsreel pictures. Journalists were allowed freedom of movement in the Vietnam War, but again it took time before videotape could be aired for the American TV viewer. By the Gulf War and the Afghanistan campaign, modern technology had made it possible to eliminate the time lapse between the fighting and home viewing, but official restrictions often hindered media access to the combat units.

In the Iraq war, a more open official US policy, combined with the marvels of modern communications, has produced striking real-time TV coverage of what is happening on various fronts. Thus wives at a stateside American military base can watch live as their husbands race their tanks across Iraq's southern desert. Mothers can watch live as their sons engage Iraqi resisters at the port of Umm Qasr. Other cameras record the scene in Baghdad as huge clouds billow after American bombing raids.

Sometimes the TV images are stark and searing as they capture the horrors of war. There is a somber but useful lesson in all this, for if we are to engage in such conflicts, with the incredible new weapons we now command, we need to be brought face to face with the human cost.

In previous wars we have been somewhat sheltered from the impact of front-line fighting, either because journalists have been obstructed from access, or because the technology did not offer real-time coverage.

In the Iraq war, those impediments have been much reduced.

There are restrictions. Correspondents cannot broadcast or write about details that might aid the enemy, particularly detailed locations of their units, or plans that would indicate where, when, or how they might attack.

What they can report on, or in the case of the TV camera crews what they can shoot, is a narrow sliver of action in their particular sector of the war. For the overall "mosaic," as the headquarters briefers keep calling it - otherwise the big picture - we must rely on those headquarters briefers. They predict ultimate victory for the coalition forces, while Saddam Hussein, or someone who looks remarkably like him, goes on Iraqi television and predicts their defeat.

But still, the coverage of the war from the coalition side under the new media rules has a lot more veracity than that from the Iraqi side, with the expulsion of unwelcome journalists, the censorship and "minding" of those allowed to remain in Baghdad, the strictly regulated government tours, and heavy-handed control of both local and foreign media.

Both Iraqi and US governments, of course, are seeking to put the best face on things. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was irritated by US commentators who likened the precision bombing of Baghdad to the carpet-bombing of London in World War II. The White House was disgusted by Al Jazeera's early screening of captured and killed American soldiers.

It remains to be seen whether journalists will have the same latitude to report if the war goes badly and the pictures they seek to transmit become even more gruesome.

Some journalists were skeptical about the new military openness. So far the embedded press seems satisfied. The public seems well served. And the military can take heart from the words of Gen. Harold G. Moore, who in the Vietnam War commanded a battalion in the 72-hour battle in the Ia Drang valley. His book was the basis for the recent movie "We Were Soldiers."

Briefing reporters preparing for the Iraq conflict a few months ago, he told them: "My policy was very simple. I was determined to give the media the opportunity to tell the American people what their sons or their husbands or their daughters were doing in Vietnam. I'm a great believer in the freedom of the press. I fought in a couple of wars for that freedom."

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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