Media in Iraq dances uneasily on ever-shifting sands of battle

In fast-paced world of instant coverage, analyses are left to blow in the wind


April 13, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Television Writer

Perhaps more than anything else, the coverage of the war in Iraq reflects the near-complete collapse of time. The marriage of 24-hour-a-day news channels with technology's new lightning pace has put immediacy within the media's grasp as never before.

Courtesy of portable satellite disks, news networks in recent weeks flooded airwaves with footage of battles raging in remote reaches of Iraq -- as they were occurring. Newspapers presented in their pages reams of articles, analyses and photographs deconstructing the war's progress within hours, often updating the information on their Web sites, almost in real time.

Today's reporting has compressed to an instant the days or weeks it once took for stories of war to be seen or heard at home. On television, it has meant a prejudice in favor of what is available instead of what may be most meaningful, argues Marvin Kalb, the former CBS and NBC diplomatic correspondent.

"This war was the first live war," Kalb says. "That means that everything is speeded up. There is no time to think, no time to reflect, and the reporter is there to give you fast sound bites and glimpses of reality."

Perhaps most strikingly, the appraisals offered by the news media have fluctuated madly, both leading and mirroring shifts in attitudes about the war held by military and political insiders. Questions raised within days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq weren't posed for years during the Vietnam War. Perceptions of the military's fortunes soared and dipped in a much quicker circadian rhythm than ever before.

'We'll figure it out'

"It's chaos -- journalistic chaos," says Seymour M. Hersh, the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter now with The New Yorker: The media is still grappling with how best to deal with the accelerated flow of information, he says, but adds, "you're always better off with more than less. We'll figure it out."

Hersh's stories have become must-reads for much of official Washington. The buzz about his reports reached a crescendo even before his April 3 piece appeared on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's controversial push to limit the size of deployment. The New Yorker posted the article on its Web site on March 31; Rumsfeld himself lectured the press the next day about reporting on military in-fighting.

The article began: "As the ground campaign against Saddam Hussein faltered last week, with attenuated supply lines and a lack of immediate reinforcements, there was anger in the Pentagon."

It was a fascinating story, with Hersh's trademark meticulous reporting offering an insider's view of the intense debates within the American military about how best to prosecute the war. The article's underlying assumptions, involving a bogged-down conflict against a surprisingly resilient foe, seemed convincing at the time.

Less than a week later, the same piece felt largely irrelevant. And last Wednesday -- just nine days later -- American troops stormed into Baghdad with little opposition and nary a word about supply lines.

Similarly, in a front-page story published March 30, The Sun's Robert Timberg and Tom Bowman wrote that victory was likely for U.S. forces, though they warned the bombing strategy used to counteract unexpected Iraqi fighters might lead to more civilian deaths than desired. Yet, the article also explicitly raised the specter of the Vietnam War, a conflict that dragged on for years until the U.S. withdrew in 1975. Ten days after that article appeared, U.S. marines were helping to topple a statue of Hussein in downtown Baghdad.

Follow bouncing ball

The general tone of media coverage has ricocheted from apprehension before the invasion, to euphoria, to determination, to anxiety, to outright criticism, to euphoria again. Consider front-page pieces by R.W. Apple Jr., the senior New York Times writer. On March 27, he wrote an analysis that began:

"The war in Iraq is just a week old but it is clear that Saddam Hussein has learned a lot since his forces were routed in the Persian Gulf War in 1991."

On March 30, Apple wrote: "It is too early to rule out a speedy resolution. But there have been military surprises and diplomatic shortfalls." Later in that piece, he cited a "diplomatic debacle" in the failure to secure Turkish approval to use military bases for strikes into Iraq, and "two gross military misjudgments" by the U.S.

By April 4, Apple was comparing U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks to American World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur; on April 6, Apple asked, "How and when . . . will the United States and its allies know they have won the Iraqi war?" And on April 10th, he wrote that Bush's policy of using military might to secure a desired result had hit "a high water mark," though he laid out challenges that lie ahead.

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