A war that remains out of focus

SUN JOURNAL

Lenses: Television crews from image-hungry media organizations struggle to cover a conflict that has revealed few pictures.

November 17, 2001|By Craig Nelson | Craig Nelson,COX NEWS SERVICE

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - Beyond Visual Range.

It's a military term that describes the target of a bomb or missile that fighter pilots can't see, but it could apply just as well to broadcasters covering the war in Afghanistan.

Television crews from CNN and their competitors from around the world had rushed to the landlocked nation in hopes of being in the right place at the right time. They had come to film bombs, casualties and, they hoped, the dramatic fall of the capital, Kabul.

But when Pentagon officials said this was "not going to be a television war like Kosovo or the Gulf," they were not wrong.

Most of the bombs and cruise missiles have fallen beyond the expectant eyes of cameras, there has been relatively little fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces and an oft-predicted refugee crisis has not materialized.

The lack of fresh pictures each day from the battlefield has led to raised tensions and blown tempers.

There have been few good TV moments, with the exception of this week, when John Simpson, the world affairs editor for the venerable British Broadcasting Corp., found himself in an extraordinary TV moment.

As he and his crew entered Kabul on foot Tuesday ahead of alliance forces seizing the capital, Simpson joyfully told a worldwide audience of millions: "I'm in here. And I have to say - I can't think of a modest way to say it, but the BBC has just liberated the place."

Surrounded by happy crowds, Simpson didn't stop there.

"You can hear the reception we're getting. They're going absolutely crazy in here. It's quite difficult sometimes to get through the crowds. They want to touch us and push us, and the extraordinary thing is the entire BBC team - it's about six of us - all ahead of the Northern Alliance. Quite, quite extraordinary."

Of course, other journalists were already there, but most had been brought in on a Taliban tour, rather than coming in ahead of the liberators.

Mostly, however, television reporters had to wait, and wait, for nothing to see. They lost their tempers as the war refused to go their way.

Last month, a CNN producer, eager to leave Afghanistan after weeks of grueling work, berated a high-ranking Northern Alliance official responsible for helping arrange transportation for journalists.

"I want to be on that helicopter on the 25th because you haven't taken Kabul. Why haven't you taken Kabul yet?" the livid producer shouted at the official, Haji Qahar.

The frustration of TV reporters in Afghanistan shows how much war coverage has come to rely on technical wizardry - a dependence that both U.S. military strategy and one of the world's most technologically backward nations have exposed.

In the 1980s, reporters covering the mujahedeen campaign to expel Soviet troops traveled with guerrilla groups, shot 16 mm film and were out of touch with their editors for up to three months. Today, satellite dishes disseminate video and audio around in the world in seconds, video phones allow TV correspondents to appear live on the evening news from the remotest locations and image-intensifying night scopes lift the veil from darkness, if only to capture moving shadows.

These technical wonders could not alter the fact that for the first three weeks of the U.S. bombing campaign against Afghanistan, most of the war took place beyond the range of Western camera lenses.

Even with night scopes, explosions from falling U.S. bombs appeared as little more than flickers behind the jagged peaks. The activities of U.S. special forces were even more inaccessible to cameras.

Yet because of the broadcast media's need for pictures, even fuzzy images were in more demand than detailed explanatory stories about the roots of the conflict in Afghanistan, says Arthur Kent, who covered the Persian Gulf war for NBC and who is now a contributing editor to Canada's MacLean's magazine.

"The major networks, like the United States government, abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. They didn't examine the mujahedeen. They didn't show how the United States left the guns and money in the hands of the worst people. Even now, it's difficult to catch up on what has happened here," says Kent, who has traveled to Afghanistan more than 40 times.

With most news organizations transmitting the same murky images, producers and correspondents had to find another way to distinguish themselves from the competition.

The result was a flood of electronic gimmicks, computer-generated graphics and other "testosterone-choked coverage," says Kathryn Flett, media critic for The Observer in London.

"How shockingly swiftly the broadcast media has overcome the obvious problems (like having nobody on the right places on the ground) to deliver the kind of macho `war' footage one hoped might be avoided, while providing the inevitable sideshow of pointless punditry, endless supposition and uninformed conjecture," Flett wrote last month.

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