NYTimes.com Article: Reporting Reflects Anxiety

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daniel schorr: war makes strange embedfellows.


Reporting Reflects Anxiety

March 25, 2003


War coverage that was speeding along on good news and
victorious imagery has bumped into hard realities. 

Sparked by word of significant American casualties, the
tenor of the coverage on television, in newspapers and on
the Internet reflected increased anxiety about the conduct
of the war. 

A public accustomed to continuous updates and instant
analysis watched in real time as the bad news came in and
the mood of reporters - and the tone taken by their
employers - seemed to change overnight. 

Until yesterday, Pentagon briefings had been well mannered,
even genteel affairs in which generals documented the day's
successes and reiterated their confidence in the outcome.
That has now changed. 

"What about all the bad news that U.S. and British forces
got over the weekend?" asked one reporter yesterday
afternoon at the Pentagon briefing, which was covered by
the cable news networks. "How does that fit into the
statements that, you know, everything's going according to

Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of
operations, Joint Staff, said, "If you step back and look
at the bigger picture, like on this campaign, it's going

Another reporter asked, "Can you bring us up to date on
your latest understanding of additional ones today and the
total number of U.S. casualties so far?" 

When Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman,
said she did not have a current tally, the reporter pressed
her: "And don't you have an obligation to share that with
the American people?" 

The quick end to the honeymoon is not without precedent.
One week after the United States entered Afghanistan and
encountered a surprising level of resistance, the word
"quagmire" began to appear in news reports. But within a
month, most of the military objectives had been achieved. 

The coverage of the Iraq war, especially on television,
began in a glow of shared purpose. "I can tell you that
these soldiers have been amazing to us," said David Bloom,
an NBC News correspondent traveling with the Third
Infantry. While pledging objectivity, he added, "They have
done anything and everything that we could ask of them, and
we in turn are trying to return the favor by doing anything
and everything that they can ask of us." 

Now, the skepticism has returned. The Daily News wrote on
Saturday that Baghdad was under assault by American-led
"birds of prey." By Monday, the paper reported on the
"bloodied American bodies." 

During the run-up to the war, the Pentagon created
expectations that any military force would have trouble
matching. As Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense,
has since pointed out, war is a difficult, unpredictable
business. Missiles will go awry, helicopters will go
astray, and military units will take wrong turns. 

It could be argued that the images of dead and captured
American forces were far more damaging than the awful
reality they portrayed. An image of awesome American
firepower had been replaced by pictures of vulnerability. 

Ed Offley, editor of the online Defense Watch Magazine,
said that the presence of young, inexperienced reporters
led to "shrill and nervous coverage." 

"It is far too early to say whether these separate, little
setbacks are a failure in the war plan," Mr. Offley added.
"Because of the way in which it is being fought, this is
shaping up as a savage little war that may or may not end
quickly. And that's a different story than what was first

Television: Bidding to Reflect a Shift in Action 

the first few days, war seemed so easy on television, and
it was covered with no small degree of pride in the display
of American power. 

"Amazing pictures as U.S. troops push into Iraq," Anderson
Cooper, a CNN anchor, told viewers early Friday morning.
"Tanks with the Seventh Cavalry roll virtually unopposed
deep into the Iraqi desert." 

But by early Sunday, it was as if somebody had changed the

"This was a very bad day," said Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, a
CNN military analyst. "I am reminded to not beat your
breast and clap your hands early." 

Television news went into this conflict with significant
access to the troops and technology that allowed it to show
the action live. When the early successes came, television
amplified the seeming effectiveness of the battle plan. But
as the news turned darker, television painted the opposite

Last night there was even some early criticism of the news
media. Fred Barnes, the executive editor of The Weekly
Standard and a commentator for the Fox News Channel, said
the news media was overstating how easy the war would be
and then panicking as fighting got rough. "The American
people," he said, "are not as casualty-sensitive as the
weenies in the American press are." 

In the days leading up to battle, the networks and local
affiliates dedicated plenty of time to the military
hardware. On WABC in New York, N. J. Burkett, a
correspondent stationed with troops in Kuwait, described
how they "tuned up their weapons like an orchestra on
opening night." 

After the first bombs dropped on Wednesday, all of the
networks carried similar pictures: An American soldier
ripping down a portrait of Saddam Hussein with the help of
an Iraqi villager; tanks cruising at 40 miles an hour up
the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad, unopposed; surrendering
Iraqi soldiers smiling behind the barbed wire fence penning
them in. 

The passage into southern Iraq was so effortless that at
one point Aaron Brown, the CNN anchor, connected a tank
commander in the desert, Clay Lyle, to his wife, Stephanie,
in Georgia. "We've gone a long way, and we've dealt with
anything we've encountered. We hope to come home real
soon," the commander said; "I love you. Be safe," his wife

On Saturday, Chip Reid, an NBC correspondent traveling with
tanks in southern Iraq, reported that the Americans were,
indeed, welcomed by the Iraqi people: "The people were out
there waving, giving thumbs up. They were blowing kisses to
the troops and the troops were waving back," he said. 

But on Sunday morning viewers were faced with a new
reality, one that included reports of heavy Iraqi
resistance, fierce firefights and pictures of dead and
wounded American soldiers. And those images kept coming
yesterday, along with urgent reports from the front line. 

Jason Bellini on CNN reported yesterday that the battle at
Umm Qasr, was, "another messy, frustrating combat

All of the networks carried video from Iraqi state
television of a downed United States helicopter and two
soldiers' helmets on the ground beside it. Later, some
briefly showed the American pilots in Iraqi custody. 

Anchors said they were simply going where the story was
taking them while trying to keep the larger picture - one
of general battlefield success - in mind. They acknowledged
that the amount of battlefield video could be overwhelming.
"It's like drinking from a fire hydrant," said Tom Brokaw,
the NBC News anchor. "We've got to stand back from that a
little bit. I go home at night mentally exhausted by it." 

Mr. Brown of CNN acknowledged that in the beginning of the
conflict, "There was certainly some gee whiz about the
technology." But, he added, "At the same time I tried to
say to people: don't expect that these tanks racing through
the desert is like a car chase on L.A. TV brought to you
live. This is not the war; this is getting to the war." 

Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News Channel commentator - who is
especially popular among conservatives - had some advice
for his viewers. He told them not to watch too much
television. "If you watch too much TV news coverage, your
perspective can get warped." 


Newspapers: Words Reflect Changing Report 

The clues that
a newspaper is fine-tuning its tone in the early days of a
big, ongoing news story are often more nuanced than on
television. It could be a shift in word choice from one
day's banner headline to the next day's that heralds the
change, or which articles are selected for the front page. 

But a spot check of a dozen newspapers from across the
country and of various sizes revealed shifts in emphasis
over the past several days that were as subtle as a roller
coaster ride. 

"Air, land war in high gear" was Saturday's banner headline
in The Sacramento Bee, joined by articles titled "Talks
urging surrender stalled attack" and "Joy, anxiety in
liberated Iraqi village." In the lead article, two
reporters from The Bee's Washington bureau and a third
reporting from Qatar wrote that "towering fireballs" filled
the Baghdad sky as American forces were "racing unopposed
across a wide swath of Iraqi desert." 

On Monday, however, any buoyancy on the American side had
been tempered by phrases in headlines like "Iraqis put up a
fight," "Fake surrender," and, over a news analysis from
The Los Angeles Times wire service, "Hope for easy victory

Rick Rodriguez, the newspaper's executive editor, said he
could understand if readers of Saturday's paper were jarred
by the change of tone when they picked up Monday's paper.
Indeed, he said, he had received a number of e-mails
messages from readers on Monday to that effect. 

But in transmitting their own sense of surprise, the
paper's editors and reporters were only reflecting the
feeling of having been caught off guard that American
troops experienced, Mr. Rodriguez said. 

"We are learning and growing with the news of the day," he
said. "The contrasting front pages reflect that reality as

Mindful that the fortunes of each side in a war can change
suddenly, Edward Kosner, the editor in chief of The Daily
News, commissioned an essay to run on Page 3 each day of
the war. An idea borrowed from the news magazines of the
1960's and 1970's, the essay, which Mr. Kosner refers to as
"the violin," is intended to be "the tone-setting
introduction to the paper," one that eases the passage of
the reader from one day to the next. 

Thus, on Saturday, under the headline "Awesome!" the essay
described war planes descending on Baghdad like "birds of
prey" with a ferocity not seen "since A.D. 1258, when the
grandson of Genghis Khan sacked Baghdad." Monday's
contribution, under the headline "A day of awe and
sadness," warned readers that "gone were the scenes of
cowed Iraqi soldiers flapping white flags" and "muted were
the spectacular images of Baghdad ablaze," all replaced by
"a grim photograph of bloodied American bodies." 

At times, articles written by the same reporter on
different days can show how quickly the first draft of
history can change. 

For example, in a front-page analysis in The Washington
Post on Saturday, under the headline "A daring race to
Baghdad; military leaves reputation for caution in the
dust," Thomas E. Ricks wrote that vanguard units in Iraq
were moving at a speed "almost unprecedented in war." 

But by Monday, in another analysis on the front page, Mr.
Ricks concluded that there were "risks inherent in the
fast-moving Pentagon war strategy," which had been
exploited by Iraqi troops and militias using "ruses,
ambushes and other guerrilla tactics." 

Having to report the setbacks experienced by American
soldiers can be particularly painful for the editors of
newspapers that are closely read on American military

The Northwest Florida Daily News, which is in Fort Walton
Beach, near both Eglin and Hurlburt Field Air Force Bases,
used the banner headline "Bombs pummel Baghdad" on Saturday
and "Tightening the noose" on Sunday. In Monday's paper,
the tone had changed slightly - "Rising resistance" was the
dominant headline - but there was no mention in the
headlines of any prisoners or casualties. A sub-headline
above an Associated Press article ("Troops locate chemical
plant") even offered cause for some optimism. 

Colin Lipnicky, the paper's managing editor, said that its
largely upbeat tone was being maintained, at least in part,
in deference to the emotions of many of the military
families in its readership of 40,000. 

"There are lots of people deployed," said Mr. Lipnicky, the
son of a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
"There are lots of loved ones worried." 


Weblogs: Facts Are in, Spin Is Out

Even if Sean-Paul Kelley, the mastermind and lightning-fast
typist behind the Weblog at agonist.org, had changed his
mind about the war in recent days, his rapidly growing
audience would not know it. In a shift that appears to
reflect a growing distrust of mass media, the most popular
Web journals to emerge in recent days are simply reporting
the news. 

"My readership has grown 350 percent over the last five
days, and I really think it's a function of the fact that I
am providing the news without the media hype of CNN and
Fox," said Mr. Kelly, 32, of San Antonio, who has devoted
the past week to transcribing news from dozens of sources
and posting it nonstop on his Web site. "The most important
thing is that people know what is going on." 

Until now, Weblogs, or blogs, have mostly been platforms
for their owners to spout their opinions on any given

But media experts say the rapid evolution of the form over
the last week underscores a popular thirst for information
that at least appears unfiltered by the anchors and editors
of the traditional media. Bloggers are casting a wide net
for information, drawing from radio, television, newspapers
and even other bloggers from around the world. 

"The backdrop of the popularity of these war blogs is a
sense of cynicism and distrust of any kind of gatekept
mainstream media," said Patricia Aufderheide, director of
the Center for Social Media at American University. "The
impression at least is what you've got is one person with
integrity sharing what they know." 

The desire for raw information without any spin appeared to
be fueled over the weekend by the refusal of most major
American media outlets to publish the photographs or video
footage of American prisoners of war that were shown on
Iraqi television Sunday afternoon. Links to the material
immediately began circulating on e-mail lists and Web

"Amazing how television refuses to show all of what Al
Jazeera showed," wrote one participant in an e-mail
discussion list, Gulfwar-2, on the war. "So here are some
more links." 

Michele Catalano, 40, started the Command Post, a blog that
describes itself as a "Warblog Collective," last week when
she had to stay home with her son, who was sick. Almost
immediately about 50 people around the world began
contributing items based on what they heard from whatever
news source they were listening to at the time. 

In a medium where a high value is placed on the quantity
and immediacy of information, the Command Post quickly
moved to the top of many favorites lists. Opinionated
Weblogs still abound, but because they are largely defined
by their second-guessing of mainstream media, they may be
less prone to shift their tone. 

"It's standard Weblog style when everybody's enthusiastic
to say, `Wait a minute, war is ugly,' " said Nick Denton,
publisher of Gawker, a Weblog devoted to New York news. "So
when talking cable heads start to get gloomy, the Weblogs'
natural tendency is to say, `Well, it was always going to
be difficult.' " 

Perhaps the most widely read war-related Weblog remains
Where is Raed?, at http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/, a diary
written from Baghdad under the pseudonym Salam Pax, who
says he is a 28-year-old Iraqi architectural engineer
educated in Austria. The author, who has made clear that he
does not support Saddam Hussein, conveys a sense of dismay
at the destruction of his city that many Web readers seem
to find more powerful than the pictures on the news. 

"The images we saw on TV last night (not Iraqi,
Jazeera-BBC-Arabiya) were terrible," the blog read today.
"The whole city looked as if it were on fire. The only
thing I could think of was `Why does this have to happen to
Baghdad?' As one of the buildings I really love went up in
a huge explosion I was close to tears." 

To feed the appetite for more information from more
sources, the Web magazine Salon has started a feature
called "War of Words," which was the first to highlight an
item from The Sydney Morning Herald that reported the use
of napalm by United States troops. 

"It's the instantaneous barrage of information that makes
the Web so powerful," said David Talbot, editor in chief
and founder of Salon. "If you're a concerned citizen and
you're not into waiting for the pool report from Kuwait,
you go online and get your news from overseas and
independent reporters and bloggers who have a million and
one different opinions." 



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