21st century news media bring home the horror

Reporting the war

April 07, 2003|By Christopher Hanson

THROUGHOUT THE 20th century, as the weapons we used to fight our wars became increasingly lethal, news coverage of the effects of combat took on an increasingly disjointed and euphemistic quality.

In the early days of World War II, CBS radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow reported that the distant explosions from a British bombing raid over Germany resembled "rice on black velvet."

In reaction to the more graphic coverage of Vietnam, the Pentagon during Gulf War I restricted access and provided film that made the conflict seem like a video game.

But nearly three weeks into Gulf War II, it's already clear that 21st century war coverage is drawing a truer bead on reality.

Consider National Public Radio correspondent Anne Garrels' reporting March 26 from a residential neighborhood in Baghdad, where Iraq said a U.S. cruise missile had just killed 14 civilians. "The crowd brought out a severed hand and were shaking it ... basically saying, `This is your liberation?' ... Another group carried around a can with human brains in it ... similarly saying, `This is what you call democracy?'"

It's a far cry from rice on velvet.

Video satellite technology, the Pentagon's decision to allow reporters to travel with military units in combat and the relatively new practice of reporting from behind enemy lines are for the first time exposing Americans to modern warfare in the raw - in real time.

It would have been unthinkable for an American to report from under the bombs in Tokyo or Berlin after we entered World War II.

Today, though, readers and viewers of news coverage are getting horrific details. The attacks on Baghdad and civilian deaths at checkpoints are far from abstractions. They have raised questions about how precise our new precision bombs and missiles really are and how sound our "rules of engagement" might be.

The news audience is getting a barrage of information about the American side, sometimes instantaneously via videophone.

About 600 reporters are "embedded" in American combat units - far more than were usually in combat operations in Vietnam, the last war with easy press access. As a result, we are getting not just cheerleading but news that might not have emerged otherwise. We have learned, among other things:

The military had not "war gamed" for the intense, guerrilla-style attacks that disrupted the long supply line from Kuwait.

Ground commanders complained that the Pentagon had not deployed enough troops to ensure a rapid victory.

U.S. soldiers failed to fire a warning shot before they blasted a van speeding toward a check point, killing up to 10 civilians.

Unfortunately, what is news or news analysis to a reporter is often taken for propaganda by others. An embedded reporter's human interest story on a guts-and-glory battalion commander, for example, can be viewed by war opponents as bloodthirsty flag-waving.

A Washington Post report that the U.S. offensive had bogged down was news, as far as the paper was concerned. But stories like that were "close to being disgraceful," according to conservative commentator William Kristol. Another conservative, Rush Limbaugh, characterized it as "an attempt to undermine the war effort."

Nonsense. What we are really seeing is how satellite technology and the 24-hour news cycle make it harder for government publicists to distort the war news because the hard facts flow too quickly.

Journalists gather that information at great risk. Witness not only last year's terrorist killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl but also the deaths in Iraq of six reporters and photographers in the past few weeks, including Atlantic Monthly editor at large and former Sun reporter Michael Kelly, and NBC correspondent David Bloom.

Mr. Kelly combined expertise in journalism and the military with great empathy and mordant powers of observation. Many of his peers consider his coverage of Gulf War I - including an ironic account of U.S. Army engineers restoring an opulent palace for the royal family of newly "liberated" Kuwait - among the best to come out of that conflict.

Mr. Bloom, Mr. Kelly and their colleagues in harm's way deserve our thanks for putting their lives on the line to dig out the truth and bear witness to both the heroic and the obscene events that mark this chapter of our history.

Christopher Hanson, who covered Gulf War I with a U.S. tank regiment in Iraq, teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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