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Postmortem: Iraq war media coverage dazzled but it also obscured

Amr Al-Mounaiery, Abu Dhabi TV correspondent: "After this war, I realized that we in the media are the soldiers of politics. Not the military soldiers. I am proud that Abu Dhabi TV showed all sides, everything. You can see CNN showed only part of the war – their favorite part. They didn't show any of the anti-American rallies or the civilian casualties. They just showed crowds welcoming American soldiers and clapping hands. It is selective journalism – like Saddam did ... This was the Arabic way. Now we are switching roads and we wonder: Where is America? Where is the American dream? Freedom of expression, where is that?"
– Excerpt from "Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq – an oral history" by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson

Based on a two-hour panel discussion – one small part of this week's Media at War Conference at UC Berkeley – truth does not inevitably have to be a casualty of war. But the pressure on journalists to abandon the everyday practice of showing all sides and many perspectives is immense.

Lt. Col. Rick Long
Lt. Col. Rick Long

For the media, access to the battlefield and to the troops was critical to telling the story of the war. Just as the media was gearing up to fight for this access, the Bush Administration and the military announced they would allow reporters to "embed" with soldiers in the field. More than 700 journalists signed up and were embedded during what turned out to be a three-week ground war. Media At War panel member Lt. Col. Rick Long, the former head of media relations for the U.S. Marine Corps, managed the media boot camp in Quantico, Virginia, which prepared journalists for their war assignments.

Why did the military decide to embed journalists with the troops? Long was candid.

"Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment." Embedding journalists honorably served that end, said Long.

While noting that the practice dated back at least a century, Long said the military believed it was a bit of a gamble. The colonel said he had gone out even farther on a limb, advocating that embedded reporters be given access to classified war planning sessions, even though publication or word-of-mouth spread of this information would have endangered the lives of American soldiers. At first, said Long, his superiors considered this to be sheer lunacy. But the proposal came to pass.

Some soldiers and officers were leery of being teamed with embedded reporters. Long said he talked to a number of these soldiers. Look, he told them, you believe in what you are doing, you are proud of it, and you are serving your country. Long counseled the wary to think of the experience as sort of like high school. "Just be yourself and maybe people will like you."

So, from the military's viewpoint, how did it work out?

"Overall," said Long, "we were very happy with the outcome."

 Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
 
 

Panelists Todd Gitlin, a professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University and former UC Berkeley Sociology professor, said some of his colleagues consider him "soft on embeds." Gitlin said the military and the media do not necessarily have irreconcilable interests. But, he allowed, "Embeddedness has a built-in swerve toward propaganda … because an embedded reporter is on the team." A reporter shares the risk and is dependent on the soldiers he is traveling with for his very life. The desire to write negative stories about them, said Gitlin, is quite diminished.

Even for a reporter riding in a tank with American soldiers, any casualties inflicted by the crew usually occur off screen and out of sight. The result, said Gitlin, is that the point of view of the reporter approximates the view of the government's own camera. War reporting becomes a travelogue.

He likened some war coverage – particularly that practiced by television – to a televised sporting event. Rather than journalism, it becomes entertainment. When the primary motive of media institutions becomes audience share, then these institutions "seek a rapture of attention" in order to procure as many eyeballs as possible. This, said Gitlin, conflicts with "a journalistic duty not to please," but rather to shake the safe assumptions of their audience.

Barbie Zelizer
Barbie Zelizer
 
 

Looking through another lens, Barbie Zelizer, a professor at both the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and the University of Pennsylvania, offered a related critique of print journalism. Zelizer focused on the use of photographs, many of which she pronounced to be both visually dazzling and journalistically inappropriate.

During times of war, newspapers make much more extensive use of photographs, said Zelizer, publishing more photos than normal, giving them greater prominence, displaying them larger and using more color photos. One example: The New York Times more than doubled its usual number of photos during the war.

Photos have explicit subject matter but they also have suggestive power, and they should be more widely recognized as reporting, contended Zelizer. A statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled off its pedestal by a crowd tells a story, a visual story of a toppled ruler. But, said Zelizer, that powerful image also seemed to symbolize what was happening in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Such inferences are inevitable, and she said, they are questionable —especially when a wider view shows that the crowds are minimal, and it is American soldiers actually doing the toppling.

Using a slide projector, Zelizer displayed a portfolio of exquisitely composed photos that had appeared in the nation's newspapers, many of them stunning works of art. For instance, there was the shot of a handful of Iraqis against a desert backdrop with the dusty sky glowing a luminescent orange. The photo was placed in the newspaper above a group of battle stories. Such images are artistic, dramatic, even beautiful, but not newsworthy, argued Zelizer. In effect, she said, they use eye-popping color to dazzle, and end up masking the darkness of death.

How did the war images published by the media "function," asked Zelizer. Often, she said, they served patriotic and not journalistic purposes. The prevalence of these beautiful images provided a prism of patriotism and thus, she said, became tools of public consensus that facilitated U.S. military and political ends.

Did the patriotic instinct that arises during time of war compromise the media's coverage and obscure our view of the war in Iraq? The Media at War panel – a forum sponsored by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley's Human Right Center, and the Office of Chancellor – shed light on the dilemma faced by a U.S. war correspondent, but ultimately it was left with a question from the audience that nobody on the panel really could answer.

How, asked a woman, do you train citizens to be informed and to learn about what is going on in the world?

For the media attempting to cover a war and for a nation striving to understand it, there is only one course, said the panel. They must share a passion for seeking out the truth.

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