The television coverage of the war in Iraq has been like none other. As soon as President Bush’s deadline of March 19 had passed, TV viewers were offered the opportunity to see, in real time, images from the besieged city of Baghdad. And thanks to embedded reporters, viewers could peer into the everyday life of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But the results of this access by television reporters and crews has beenat least during the first few daysmixed at best and disturbing at worst.
To begin with, the practice of embedding journalists, while providing greatly increased access for journalists, allowed TV reporters to provide viewers in the first few days with the kind of celebratory coverage that one would expect to find in a U.S. Army recruiting video. At times reporters seemed almost giddy to be riding on an aircraft carrier, wearing camouflage or crossing the desert on a tank. The oddly jokey banter between the anchors in New York and Atlanta and those in the field was especially jarring, particularly in light of the horrible events they were supposed to be covering.
Embedding worked to the Pentagon’s favor, at least at first. But does it serve to inform and increase understanding among viewers? While it is natural to expect American reporters to side with American troops, one wonders whether any reporters would in the future embed themselves with refugees on the move, with poor Kurds or Shiites or with any ordinary Iraqi citizens. This is part of the war, too, andregardless of one’s opinions about the conflictit deserves to be reported if we are to understand the situation more fully. Objectivity may be the first casualty of embedding.
Whether or not the term embedding was meant to evoke the phrase in bed with is an open question. Clearly the Pentagon hoped that increased access for journalists would mean more stories about the U.S. troops, which might strengthen support for the war, even among those initially opposed to the conflict. Embedded reporters also have a raft of high-tech equipment with which to file their reports. The resulting temptation is to file reports simply because one can, not because there is anything new to report, and this leads to even more profiles of soldiers and gee-whiz accounts of military hardware.
Overall, one was reminded of the recent coverage of the Olympics, when networks decided to furnish more of a story. Instead of simply airing sports events (which supposedly only men like), networks now give viewers an overarching narrative (which supposedly women like). War is now packaged in a similar fashion. So viewers first saw stories of soldiers and their families, similar to the Up Close and Personal Olympic profiles, as a sort of preview of the feature event.
But beyond these individual profiles, television needs an overarching narrativeand it must conform to what we are used to seeing in movies. Thus the supporting cast of intrepid journalists, high-tech weapons that never injure innocent civilians, sad but hopeful family members, feckless allies (except the plucky British), an evil dictator and, to ensure that it’s not too depressing, some humorous moments (but not too many). In the background are slick computer graphics, martial music and colorful maps. It is part of the networks’ efforts to make the war entertainingthat is, to make it sellable.
And many of us buy it. In his incisive book Wartime, Paul Fussell discusses the promotion of the Second World War to the American public. In a chapter entitled Accentuate the Positive he writes: All this morale-sustaining publicity works, of course, because it operated in a society which has not just developed advertising to a high pitch, but trained an immense audience to believe itand enjoy it.
If the media fail to inform the American public fully or well, for whatever reason, many will be less likely to understand this war. And in not understanding it, we will be far more likely to go to war, once again.