Barrage of military opinions

But do they know way to Baghdad?

War In Iraq


March 31, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With the U.S. war plan under attack, and confusion as to whether or not there is a "pause" in the campaign to take down Saddam Hussein, television over the weekend was full of retired generals and colonels offering their analyses of how the war was going.

Generally, the analyses offered by these windbags of war were full of it.

Military experts are not new to television coverage of war. They played a prominent role on television during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, with some even becoming momentary TV celebrities thanks to all the prime-time exposure alongside network anchormen.

But there are more of them than ever before - lots more. One reason for that is that there are three all-news cable channels today instead of just CNN as was the case during the first gulf war. And each is trying to outgun the others with military experts. MSNBC alone lists 13 retired generals, admirals and colonels as military experts whom it shares with sister network, NBC.

In television terms, their presence has more to do with symbolism and staging than it does with insight. Surrounding NBC's Tom Brokaw at his anchor desk with three retired generals and colonels - all paying attention to his every word and answering his questions - is meant to portray the anchorman as a general-in-the-know himself, if not commander-in-chief, in the center of this "war room."

The other message spoken in the language of television by a lineup full of retired generals is that your network or cable channel is allied with the U.S. military. Or, put another way, you are on the side of the good guys even if you do seem critical in some of your coverage from time to time.

CNN and Fox News, the two ratings leaders in cable war coverage, seemed to be in a race over the weekend not only to see which could get more military experts on the air, but also which could treat them with more deference.

For Fox it was a visual way of reinforcing its effort to position itself as television's chief Pentagon cheerleader. But it was just as important for CNN to wrap itself in military symbolism and expertise in hopes of warding off criticism that it was somehow being less patriotic because it was more skeptical of the Pentagon in its coverage.

Given all the serious questions being asked about U.S. war strategy in the press, what was most striking about the TV military experts this weekend is how superficial they were in their analyses.

MSNBC's Tom Koren, a retired colonel, sounded more like a retired coach doing NCAA basketball coverage than a military expert when he said incidents of American soldiers dying from friendly fire would decrease once our troops "get into battle rhythm."

In his defense, Koren usually appears in a segment that MSNBC titles "military minute." That is exactly the kind of prime-time TV packaging that results in even the most serious matters - like the death of American soldiers - being reduced to show-business triviality.

One of the goals of such packaging is to make the report move faster - out of fear that viewers will tune out if they are not razzled and dazzled every second. Tightening the presentations by military experts was also part of an effort at the very start of the war to create more time for reports from the "embedded" reporters in the field who are traveling with the coalition troops.

But it's not like there is any real shortage of time when you are talking about an all-news cable channel that is covering the war 24/7. Furthermore, the networks and cable channels have quickly come to understand that the embedded reports mostly offer tightly focused snapshots that can confuse rather than clarify the overall view as to how the war is going.

Telling how and where the war is going is what military analysts are supposed to be doing, but that isn't what is happening most of the time. I watched 78 reports by military experts over the weekend. They used pointers, maps, telestrators, simulations and computer-generated gizmos too numerous to list.

But the single most important piece of information as to military strategy and direction of the war came not from any of the military experts. It came from John Burns, a New York Times reporter in Baghdad, who spoke to public television's Jim Lehrer on a telephone from his hotel as a still photograph of Burns' face was shown on-screen.

Burns told Lehrer about seeing a steady and growing stream of young men who he knew to be suicide bombers arriving at his hotel in recent days. He described them as part of a growing movement within the Arab world of young men coming to fight for Iraq against the Americans and British. He predicted many more suicide bombings in the days ahead.

The conversation between Burns and Lehrer took place during Saturday night's NewsHour on PBS, and it was so low-tech you could hear Burns ruffling the pages of his reporter's notebook as he searched for quotes to share with Lehrer.

Yesterday, his report and analyses formed the story that all the military experts were chasing a day late from a distance with all their high-tech TV toys.

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