Sunday, April 03, 2005

Fighting and covering the war that wasn’t


Even with the thoughts, prayers and investment of the American public behind you, it’s got to be hard to fight a war, or to cover it, when enemy and ally are largely indistinguishable and suicide bombs are a major method of attack. It's got to be harder still when those risking their lives every day are doing so for a public largely oblivious to what’s going on.

The reason for the public's ignorance is simple: News from Iraq has largely disappeared, especially on the so-called "all news" cable stations so many Americans rely on as their primary, if not sole, source of news. It's easy to blame an Administration intent on keeping public attention elsewhere. But government wouldn't succeed without the complicity of television news exeuctives eager to boost ratings rather than spread information, more comfortable filing reports on the president's grand language of freedom and democracy than on showing or measuring the violence that continues to cripple Iraq.

Could it be that in this world of media consolidation, corporate owners would rather not make waves with a de-regulation friendly White House? I, for one, don't doubt it.

"The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war," begins an article in this spring's issue of "Parameters," a quarterly publication of the U.S. Army War College. "... Today's military commanders stand to gain more than ever before from controlling the media and shaping their output."

The author, BBC news producer Kenneth Payne, might have added that in today's news environment it doesn't take much effort to control that output. The ingredients of control in Iraq go something like this: Declare the outbreak of democracy, keep casualties as bloodless numbers, scare away most reporters (the Iraqi insurgents take of that), and figure the press and public soon will turn to simpler versions of reality TV to grab their attention. Who needs censorship or even concentrated propaganda when Laci and Michael are around?

Last week I got a glimpse of the ground war in Iraq. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on TV. Kevin Sites, the NBC reporter and videographer whose story about a Marine killing an injured insurgent in Fallujah kicked up its own firestorm, visited Emerson College and showed students both the raw and edited footage of his story. He led an interesting discussion about the footage NBC left out of the aired report – pictures of the soldier pointing his gun from close quarters and the bullets kicking into the prostrate insurgent, who had been wounded in fighting the day before. Afterwards, however, what interested one student who emailed me was not the ethics of what aired, but the visual reality of the war itself. “Now I see what sensory war reporting is all about,” he said. Curious that it took a guest speaker rather than the nightly news.

Unlike coverage during the Vietnam War, he – and we -- are rarely seeing the reality of war. Recently, as it turns out, we’re practically not seeing the war at all.

Two days after Sites’ visit, student teams reported in class about how the war is playing – on cable television, in the elite press, in the alternative press, in blogs from Iraq, and so forth. The three students following CNN, MSNBC and Fox news, respectively – the three 24/7 cable news networks – offered the same lamentable assessment.

The war, they said, has disappeared from the airwaves. No packages. No footage. Virtually no coverage other than a very occasional 10 or 15 second “news reader.”

Newspapers are doing only slightly better. At the bottom of Page 8 in my Sunday New York Times today, I found a story telling me that 20 U.S. troops had been wounded in a major assault on Abu Ghraib prison. Had I not looked for the story – my course, after all, is titled “Journalism in Wartime” – I could easily have missed it. An update on the news wires later today said the U.S. military had increased the number of wounded American defenders to 44. That’s a lot of American men and women for a footnote on Page 8.

Perhaps the story will work its way onto tonight's news broadcasts and tomorrow's Page 1. But I’ll wager if it does, in most news outlets it will be wrapped into a positive piece on the election, finally, of a Sunni speaker to the new Iraq assembly. The message: If our boys were hurt, it continues to be for a good cause.

But on Page 4 of my Boston Globe today, framing a huge green-and-white ad for Macy’s, I discovered a different assessment of Iraq: that things aren’t going all that swimmingly.

“For the first time, US officials have backed off from their optimistic assessment after the Jan. 30 elections,” The Globe reports. “They are now predicting a ‘bumpy road,’ with political parties breaking up into ethnic and sectarian factions.”

Both the fact, and the implications of that bumpy road likely will continue to be lost on the American public being spared the realities of Iraq. Lost, that is, unless and until things turn so bad the media get a sharp wake-up call. Ultimately, I don't believe hiding the truth can help forge better policy. And that's the weakness of the government and the news media acting as though the war has just gone away.

News can never be purely objective. But most reporters (at least those not claiming to work for a “fair and balanced” network) try to do their best. As another student told Emerson’s college newspaper, he couldn’t tell by listening to Kevin Sites whether Sites is for or against the war. He clearly respected the Marines with whom he traveled. But he also respects his audience and believes that when we fight wars American citizens deserve to see what actually happens.

The answer is that people get killed. War is not antiseptic. Nor has this one ended. So why was it front-page news this week in a New England's newspaper when a group of fake vigilantes decided to patrol the Mexican border to guard against illegal immigrants but not front-page news when real soldiers in a real war fought a pitched battle in Baghdad? If you unearth the answer, please let me know.


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