LETTER from LONDON
TV and THE IRAQ WAR
A video clip of Saddam Hussein is telecast to Arabic viewers
Heaven for news junkies,
but he's hungry for more
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
James Thurber first lampooned electronic news reporting back in the 1930s. America was living through its first information revolution of modern times and news broadcasters were having trouble deciding how to use their new power. The public was reacting strangely to this flood of words on their radios.
As Thurber noted, people were tuning in to the news throughout the day to see if there was a war on. If not, they switched it off and breathed easily for a few hours.
Its not much different today. The hourly BBC radio time signal of six high-frequency beeps triggers a collective lunge for the volume control in Britain to catch the latest five-minute summary.
But this time there was a war on. For more than a month I spent seven or eight hours a day channel-surfing to compare the networks, British, French and American. I was awake at 3 a.m., sitting in my pyjamas in front of the TV. It was news junkie heaven.
So why were we left with feelings of emptiness and exhaustion when the excitement was over? Most people I have spoken over here with agree that except for the statue-toppling, the impact of 24-hour television news from Iraq was confusing and ultimately nerve-wracking. Paradoxically, even for a junkie there is such a thing as too much news when it is served in isolated bite-sized reports unrelated to each other.
Did this access bring Americans any closer to the truth of what was happening on the ground? Certainly not. The distortion of narrow video reports outweighed the value of instant information.
The Wall Street Journal described the impact as whipsawing the public from highs to lows.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was quoted as observing, A small part of a large mosaic can take on increased importance, and can increase the publics impatience for results. Indeed, in the first 10 days of the war, the embedded reports drew attention to the resistance and the delays in securing Um-Qasr and Basra. Only when the column of tanks began moving northward did the television journalists become an asset from the U.S. military point of view.
The result of all this footage was a mixed picture.
POSTURING--A large part of the problem was the competition among the ambitious men and women reporting for the big networks--CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, ITN, Sky News, MSNBC. It was clear that the youngsters in this crop saw the war as their chance to hog the air and launch a career. Maybe snatch a Peabody Award. The older, more credible men such as Brent Sadler of CNN looked out of place in this world of sharp elbows, porcelain teeth and hairspray. The next generation of anchors was being born before our eyes. Unfortunately there are no Edward R. Murrows, Charles Collingwoods or Alexander Kendricks among them.
TECHNOLOGY--We will remember this war for its video images from picturephones and satellite uplinks too primitive to transmit at the high data rates needed for full-motion video. It was an updated version of the old shortwave radio broadcasts, hissing, fading in and out, that brought World War II into our living rooms. Subliminally, the imperfection added to the eerie quality to the war itself. (The artist in me preferred the pixelated squares of greens, tans and browns.) Next time around, we may have hi-fi sound and high-definition images. And there will be a next time.
EMBEDDED REPORTERS--Something between 500 and 600 journalists of various nationalities were allowed to travel with military columns to report the war. They worked under tight rules, never comfortable for a journalist, but their snapshot reports were the first of their kind in a true war zone. It was an interesting experiment. One two-minute live segment was transmitted from atop an armoured personnel carrier rumbling toward Baghdad. Another, less controlled, showed a prominent BBC reporter, John Simpson, narrowly escape death when friendly fire killed his translator and a dozen Kurds. Simpson limped forward after the bomb struck, one leg of his trousers torn off, and spoke into a camera with blood dripping down the lens. I actually saw the bomb come in. A white cylinder with a red tip. It was clearly American. This should never have happened, he managed to say, shaking his bloodied head, his voice up an octave.
CENSORSHIP--Viewed from abroad, most disturbing was the U.S. censorship. The reality of death and injury was hidden from American television viewers on the dubious grounds that it might undermine support for the war. Threats from Donald Rumsfeld were heard by the networks, and the grisly side of war was never shown to the people whose taxes financed it. Meanwhile, French television, which I also receive in London, provided a truer and more balanced--if somewhat overly critical--version of events. And of course the Al-Jazeera Arabic language network from Qatar did the same only more so. Before leaping to condemn critics of the war, Americans might be wise to reflect on what is happening to their right to free expression.
THE FOX PROBLEM--Living in Britain, we are spared the indignity of Fox Televisions cheerleading. Rupert Murdoch has a gift for understanding what the largest number of people in an information marketplace want, and we see it in London in his very successful tabloid newspapers. Murdochs influence on Fox Television is said to be direct, and the old rigors of impartiality and objectivity are out the window. So long as the broadcasters play to the gallery of American jingoism, his business is protected. What kind of management could ever consider sending an eccentric ex-weatherman like Geraldo Rivera into Iraq as a journalist? As Frank Rich of the New York Times put it, Fox is for those who want their war without irony or ambiguity or anything other than good news. Typically, one Fox anchor was heard to say, Objectively speaking, its hard to believe things could go much more successfully.
LEADING THE WAY--As the United States begins to offer its values to the oppressed, we should remind ourselves what the purpose of a free press is. I am an old-fashioned journalist, and always thought we were clear on this point. Open debate, a blend of opinion, vigorous criticism are supposed to be part of the process that makes democracy work. News management, government control of the press, threats aimed at news executives are the methods of the other side.
If we want to claim to be a benign hegemon, in the words of Robert Kagan of the Rand Corporation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we must lead by example.
©2003 by Michael Johnson. The illustration is from the website of ABC News' 'Nightline."
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