'Killing field' for journalism

News: TV's shallow coverage of the Kosovo conflict does dishonor to the great tradition of American reportage on war.

April 11, 1999|By Jim Squires

THE HUMAN DRAMA of war has long been fertile ground for novelists and moviemakers and, in the case of "M-A-S-H," even TV situation comedy. But as a topic for the new TV entertainment-news, it is proving to be a true "killing field" -- especially for journalism.

A confirmed news addict, I have spent nearly two weeks glued to the all-news TV channels' attempt to bring me firsthand the Kosovo adventure. And so far I can't tell which is most incompetent: the White House, the State Department or U.S. television. Or whom I detest more: the butcher Slobodan Milosevic or the TV producers who are butchering any chance of my understanding what is going on.

Some of the best and most respected journalists of this century were U.S. war correspondents who chronicled their country's glorious triumph in World War II and its dismal failure in Vietnam. With few exceptions, those chosen as battlefield reporters were the most experienced, maturest and bravest among us, people whose judgment, character and objectivity could meet the test of decision-making in a bunker or a foxhole.

Different type of reporter

The names of Ernie Pyle, Marguerite Higgins, David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne and Horst Faas come to mind. To those of us old enough to remember or industrious enough to study history, these famous war reporters and most of their contemporaries are growing in stature by the minute as one U.S. president after another undertakes military adventures abroad in full view of the satellite cameras.

Along with these "air wars," modern technology has brought us a new and dramatically different variety of war correspondents. And no matter how history regards Desert Storm, Desert Fox and Monica's Kosovo War, they will live in journalistic infamy as the wars brought to us by the "TV twits."

No doubt satellite technology has the potential for making us the best-informed society in the history of the world. And no amount of nostalgia for the journalism of the past can dispute the overwhelmingly superior communicative power of watching war refugees climbing through the snow toward safety or targets exploding beneath U.S. bombs.

But, for the most part, the reporters assigned to cover these modern air wars are confined to briefing rooms at military headquarters far from the action or, worse, left to their own devices behind anchor news desks with the mission of filling time 24 hours a day. It is hard to tell which variety of modern journalist presents the greater danger to public understanding of the conflict or to public confidence in a free press.

Among the "captives" relegated to frustrating briefings at NATO headquarters in Brussels are some of the best journalists in the world who attempt to put the news in perspective every day in written dispatches.

Unfortunately, most of the world is getting its view of NATO from TV reporters whose main qualifications seem to be good looks and the ability to portray every possible emotion in their voices. These so-called reporters appear to be totally unaware that, in both journalism and war, the premium is on patience, patriotism and perspective -- about none of which they have a clue.

As someone who has spent most of his life trying to pry information out of reluctant government sources, I can't imagine myself or any good reporter rising to ask somebody running a war what time the next bomber would take off and where it would go. A briefer who didn't evade the question or refuse to answer would be guilty of incompetence. What kind of journalistic ethic could possibly justify my standing before a TV camera and telling the target that the bomb had just left Italy and would be there in less than an hour?

What I can imagine, however, is a general or a president having so much confidence in me or my contemporaries as American journalists that he could and would give me that detailed information without the slightest concern the mission would be compromised.

But those were the days when journalism had among its values a degree of responsibility that included keeping events in perspective -- a duty totally lost on modern TV news -- and an overriding goal of maintaining public confidence in the institution of a free and independent press. It is hard to respect a TV news anchor who responds to her correspondent's breathless report of the scene at the Albanian border with, "Wow, Ted." Or a network that selects an analyst on the politics of war because he is young, cute and wears a bow tie? (What other possible reason could CNN have for Tucker Carlson?)

Press' responsibility

Being free and responsible go hand-in-hand, just like politics and deception. Journalism and competence. Television and hype.

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