Viewers virtually atop tanks for Baghdad invasion

Embedded photographer takes cable watchers on intense ride into capital

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Viewers tuned to the Fox News Channel yesterday morning saw the video images that many had been waiting and hoping for since the start of the Iraq war: U.S. troops rolling into Baghdad.

At times the footage had the raw, jumpy look of home movies. But the images of the 3rd Infantry taking control of one of Baghdad's major thoroughfares were vivid, intense and gripping.

Shot by an embedded Fox photographer from atop an armored vehicle in a convoy of 26 tanks and 10 armored vehicles, the videotape positioned viewers almost as if they were looking down the gunsight of the vehicle's automatic weapon as it fired. And the gun was firing regularly at trucks, cars, jeeps and buildings as the convoy rolled along a four-lane highway in the capital.

One sequence showed a white pickup truck - the kind of vehicle used in suicide attacks - driving toward the armored vehicle as the convoy approached an underpass.

But then the pillars of the underpass alongside the truck began exploding with American tank fire. The driver of the truck slammed on its brakes and raced away in reverse gear.

The videotape showed four men with weapons abandoning the truck farther down the road.

A few moments later, a white sedan that looked to be abandoned along a median strip suddenly came racing head-on toward the armored vehicle. Just before the car made contact with the convoy, an M-1 Abrams tank slammed into it from the side, crushing it against a guard rail. There appeared little chance that anyone inside the car was alive.

Fox had more than just dramatic pictures on the foray into Baghdad.

Greg Kelly, a Fox reporter who accompanied the 3rd Infantry, put the pictures in perspective during an interview with Col. David Perkins, who commanded the operation.

""What was the immediate objective? Why did you go into Baghdad?" Kelly, a former Marine, asked Perkins with his first question.

""Our objective was that this was the main road that goes through the heart of Baghdad, and it was heavily defended. So, by going in today, what we did is destroy his defenses all along that road," Perkins said.

"We've severed the city in half. We linked up on the far side with the airport. So, now we have taken that road between the southern portion of the city and the airport and destroyed all resistance. And that allows us to cut him in half and tighten the noose, so to speak," said Perkins.

Within 20 minutes of the interview, Fox News had a map on the screen to illustrate what Perkins had said. The all-news cable channel certainly tried to give context to the striking images and words.

It would have made for exemplary coverage if not for the giddy, self-congratulatory tone at the anchor desk. Unfortunately, a happy-talk trio of weekend morning-show hosts served as anchors during the first portion of Kelly's reports. Their goofy banter was inappropriate to the images of death that were being shown.

The tone improved somewhat when Neil Cavuto took over the anchor desk at 10 a.m. He understood the import of the pictures - even if he did overstate it a bit. "Greg," he said, "you've witnessed something people have been waiting two weeks to see: the taking of Baghdad, or at least the penetration of Baghdad."

But then Fox brought Kelly's father, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, onscreen, and Cavuto described them as "both pretty heroic individuals."

CNN came on later in the morning with its reports of U.S. troops entering Baghdad. But the first wave of its images were from a videophone, and it was hard to discern exactly what was being shown.

MSNBC, as has been the case through much of the war, came in last and with the least by way of coverage yesterday.

U.S. troops taking Baghdad is the drama that television has been writing for since this war began. Based on yesterday's overture, it looks as if embedded photographers and correspondents will be allowed to take viewers inside that drama.

The question is whether the folks back at the all-news cable anchor desks will present such life-and-death reality with the seriousness it deserves. Or, as with the morning crew on Fox News yesterday, will they come off more like teen-agers watching a video game in their parents' basement?

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