Cable must consider the rest of the story

There's more to aftermath than images of looting

April 12, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television news is gearing down from its fever-pitch coverage of the war in Iraq, but it's having a hard time finding a voice in which to tell the equally important continuing story of life after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The made-for-TV-movie story line of a blitzkrieg-like assault across the desert to Baghdad came to climax with the picture-perfect image of the giant bronze statue of Hussein being toppled in the capital city on Wednesday. There was no doubt within network and cable newsrooms as to how the war should be covered from the time U.S. troops reached the outskirts of Baghdad last weekend through the fall of the statue.

But it's been mostly downhill since in terms of where to point the cameras and what story to tell. Considerable coverage has focused on looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

As John Gibson, of the Fox News Channel, put it in an on-air headline: "Chaotic conditions in the capital city as looters run wild."

It's understandable that all-news cable channels would jump on this narrative to the degree that they have - it's filled with the kind of conflict and disruption of order that makes for instant drama. But one television critic with a bully pulpit rightfully questioned whether the images being played and replayed on the 24-hour all-news channels were truly representative of what was happening in Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense who has offered several informed critiques of television during his press briefings the last three weeks, took on TV news again yesterday.

"The images [of looting] that you are seeing on television are images that you are seeing over and over and over. And it's the same pictures of the same person walking out of some building with a vase," Rumsfeld said in answer to a question about looting.

"And you see it 20 times. And you think, `My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the country?'"

There is overstatement to be sure, but Rumsfeld's point about how many times a day the same set of images is replayed on channels with 24 hours to fill is a good one. If nothing else, it should serve to remind the Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC - all of which have enjoyed huge ratings increases thanks to the war - that responsibility comes with the privilege of covering news.

Part of that responsibility involves recognizing the power such channels have to shape national perception and, therefore, always trying to offer context to such red-hot images. Perhaps, instead of just replaying the same images of looting in Iraq, the cable channels could have gone to the archives and found some of the footage of riots in American cities in the late 1960s - or in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict was announced - and done an on-air comparison. The perspective certainly could not have hurt.

What was most striking yesterday about Rumsfeld's critique was the way in which the all-news cable channels responded: Images of looting appeared with far less frequency after the 2 p.m. press conference. The difficult thing to know is whether they did it because Rumsfeld was right, or because they didn't want to appear to be anti-Pentagon, with ratings suggesting that viewers like pro-Pentagon coverage. The networks and cable channels contacted for this analysis all declined a chance late yesterday to respond to what Rumsfeld said at the press conference about their coverage of looting.

Some of the problems television news has been having since Wednesday involve the mechanics of covering such a big story. How many embedded reporters should be called back home, and how many should be deployed somewhere else? All of the networks and cable channels are shifting personnel around as they try to determine what needs to be covered.

For the all-news cable channels, the decisions are much more fundamental and obvious to viewers: After three weeks of ditching everything for wall-to-wall coverage, all three channels are trying to ease back into a lineup this weekend that includes some regularly scheduled programming, like The Capital Gang on CNN.

Television news is struggling in its coverage in part because it is more a product of entertainment than journalism. After the fall of the statue of Hussein on Wednesday, the final credits of an action-adventure movie titled Assault on a Dictator would have rolled, and the film would have ended. In Hollywood, there's no need to think past the climax and final credits.

Television news did some solid work yesterday covering the memorial service at Fort Bliss for nine U.S. soldiers killed on March 23 in Iraq. As the anniversary of 9/11 showed, television understands the importance of the shared emotions and values involved in such a ceremony.

But now comes the hard work of journalism and history - covering and explaining the political and civic life of Iraq after Saddam. The visuals probably won't be as gripping, the ratings definitely won't be as high. One can only wonder how long the all-news cable channels will stick around for this version of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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