The Media's Iraq War: <i>A Survey of Recent Articles</I>

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“During seven weeks
spent with half a dozen [U.S. Army] units,” recalls David Zucchino, a
reporter for
The Los Angeles Times class="text28">(May 3, 2003), “I slept in fighting holes and armored
vehicles, on a rooftop, a garage floor and in lumbering troop trucks. . . .
I ate with the troops. . . . I complained with them about the choking dust,
the lack of water, our foul-smelling bodies, and our scaly, rotting
feet.”


Like the 600 other journalists “embedded” in U.S. military units during the 43-day war in Iraq, Zucchino was
dependent on his hosts for sustenance, transportation, protection—and
access. This last enabled him to write vividly detailed stories about the
battle for Baghdad and the performance of American soldiers in combat. But
the officially sanctioned access also limited him. “I could not
interview survivors of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers. . . . I had
no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing.”


Despite its drawbacks, the extensive embedding
experiment (which had been tried on a limited basis during the
2001–02 war in Afghanistan) was deemed a success by both the military
and the media.


Major newspapers, such as The
New York Times
, The
Washington Post
, and "text57">The Los Angeles Times, also dispatched
many reporters and photographers who were not lodged with U.S. troops.
Those colleagues, says Zucchino, “covered what we could not—the
Iraq government, civilian casualties, humanitarian crises, military
strategy, political fallout, and everything else beyond our cloistered
existence.” “The war has been reported superbly by
newspapers,” says Stephen Hess, who scrutinizes the media from his
scholarly perch at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The
stories have been rich in variety, coming at this from so many different
angles.”


But only a minority of Americans (30 percent, in one
poll) relied on newspapers for news about the war. Advanced technology and
access to the battlefield allowed both cable and broadcast TV to relay
powerful images of firefights and bombs exploding over Baghdad.


Yet graphic footage of the
death and suffering seldom made it on the air, at least in the United
States. A study of more than 40 hours of coverage on the broadcast and
cable networks early in the war “found that about half the reports
from embedded journalists showed combat action, but not a single story
depicted people hit by weapons,” writes Jacqueline E. Sharkey, head
of the Depart­ment of Journalism at the University of Arizona, in
class="text57">American Journalism Review (May
2003). “As the war continued, the networks did show casualties,
usually from afar. The footage was much less graphic than still photographs
shown in newspapers and magazines.”


Fox News, the most-watched cable news channel, and
MSNBC, which drew on the journalistic resources of NBC News, took an
“overtly patriotic approach” in their coverage, Sharkey notes,
and reaped huge ratings increases. That’s not to say there was no
media criticism of the war, observes contributing writer Rachel Smolkin in
a subsequent issue (June 2003) of
American
Journalism Review
—especially when the
march on Bagh­dad seemed bogged down. She reports that journalists are
still debating whether they overreacted to Wash­ington’s
cues—pumping up the promised “shock and awe” campaign,
then complaining when a quick victory seemed out of reach, for
example—and to the demands of a round-the-clock news cycle.


Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the class="text26">Columbia Journalism Review who
was in Qatar during the war, found MSNBC’s “mawkishness and
breathless boosterism” repellent. “Its anchors mostly recounted
tales of Amer­ican bravery and derring-do,” he writes in
class="text26">The New York Review of Books (May
29, 2003).


Far more impressive, in Massing’s judgment, was
the coverage by the BBC. “With 200 reporters, producers, and
technicians in the field, its largest deployment ever, the network offered
no-nonsense anchors, tenacious correspondents, perceptive features, and a
host of commentators steeped in knowledge of the Middle East, in contrast
to the retired generals and colonels we saw on American TV. Reporters were
not afraid to challenge the coalition’s claims.”


The coverage CNN offered to the world at large was,
despite “plenty of overlap,” different from the coverage it
gave American viewers, according to Massing. CNN International “was
far more serious and informed”—more like the BBC. “For
the most part,” he says, “U.S. news organizations gave
Americans the war they thought Americans wanted to see.”


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