Civilization is said to have been born between the Tigris and Euphrates, and last week it seems to have crawled back there to curl up and die. On March 19, when President Bush launched his preemptive strike on Iraq, the media responded with their own blitzkrieg, a kaleidoscope of images that shifted quickly from fireworks over Baghdad to forlorn Iraqi children to U.S. prisoners of war. The hawks hoped to inspire “shock and awe,” but no civilized person could watch this drama unfold without feeling sadness and rage.
In recent weeks, reporters “embedded” with U.S. troops seemed to think they were off on an excellent adventure. But just a few days of war shattered that illusion. As ground troops raced toward Baghdad, U.S. and British helicopters crashed, the U.S. shot down a British plane, and a U.S. soldier threw a grenade into his supervisors’ tent. Iraqi soldiers fought back, and the bodies piled up day by day. Then on Sunday, Iraqi TV broadcast tapes of P.O.W.’s and dead American soldiers. In an effort to suppress the images, Donald Rumsfeld denounced the Arab press for violating the Geneva Convention (which struck some as ironic, given that the U.S. displayed shackled prisoners at Guantánamo Bay). While the government seemed to want embedded reporters to depict the war in pastels, the sudden setbacks left them no choice but to paint it black.
U.S. media companies had agreed to accept censorship in exchange for battlefield access, but the jury is still out on whether this pact serves the public interest. On the afternoon of March 20, the day troops pushed into Iraq, MSNBC’s Brian Williams noted that the U.S. was censoring everything. (The embargo was later lifted.) The next day, Iraqi officials expelled CNN’s Nic Robertson and his crew from Baghdad, accusing them of toeing the American line. Producer Ingrid Formanek, who was with Robertson in Baghdad, told CNN, “It’s been a great propaganda campaign. I mean, all sides want to control the media as much as possible. . . . And [the Iraqis’] concern was they weren’t getting their message out.”
Propaganda and censorship went hand in hand. By the weekend, a number of embeds had been reportedly kicked out for compromising the security of their units, while some of those who remained began prefacing their bland TV dispatches with phrases like “There’s not much I’m allowed to tell you.” Then around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, British journalist David Bowden was allowed to broadcast live combat scenes from Umm Qasr, which ran on CNN for hours and struck some as pornographic.
In addition to psychological pressure, the press faced sudden death. An Australian cameraman was killed by a car bomb, and the British TV company ITN reported that three journalists were missing, including correspondent Terry Lloyd. What happened to the Brits was a mystery. According to the Mail on Sunday, a cameraman who was with the group said they were driving away from Iraqi soldiers near Basra when they were fired on by “allied tanks.” (He later said he wasn’t sure.) A Kuwaiti police lieutenant told the Arab News that the bodies had been found in Umm Qasr—shot dead by Iraqi snipers. On March 23, ITN concluded that Lloyd’s dead body remained in a hospital behind enemy lines in Basra.
The U.S. military has warned journalists not to go to the front lines in Iraq without an escort, while denying that our troops will target journalists. But by the end of last week, the rumor going around Baghdad was that coalition forces planned to bomb the Hotel Al-Rasheed, a known residence for foreign correspondents. Ironically, one of the reasons Iraq said it expelled CNN was for spreading that rumor—and causing journalists to evacuate the government-owned Al-Rasheed. Both sides of this conflict seem to view the media as tools to be used and abused.
Even as reporters were running for their lives in Iraq, some colleagues at home still acted like sportscasters. One had only to turn on the TV over the weekend to see some talking head, safely ensconced in an East Coast studio, grinning and bobbing over the latest news from the battlefield. On Saturday night, Larry King offered a vivid example of studio disconnect. As CNN aired a live shot of Baghdad, King gushed, “It’s dawn, coming up on what looks like the beginning of a beautiful day.”
King could take a lesson from Dan Rather, who said he had practiced rigorously to acquire the necessary gravitas for war news. Wolf Blitzer and other CNN correspondents rarely allowed a smile to cross their faces, which contributed to their authority. MSNBC and CNN seemed pro-war at times, especially when they trotted out the retired generals, but at least they were not Fox, where talking heads discussed the fine line between “air dominance” and “air supremacy” and showed a slavish devotion to the censors. Many Americans preferred the BBC to any U.S. outlet.
Advancing with the troops last week, reporters frequently had to don gas masks under threat of chemical attack, but some seemed to have left their bullshit detectors at home. NPR’s John Burnett, who is embedded, told WNYC’s On the Media that when he encountered some non-embedded journalists on the road, he envied their freedom to wear jeans and T-shirts and felt like he was with his parents on vacation. But listening to them ask which roads to take, he realized that “when you’re with the marines, you feel safe!” Burnett swore that if the time came, he would “rake them over the coals.”
One presumes the press will get the truth out. But the Pentagon now has the power to broadcast to millions of people instantly, and the embeds have turned into virtual hostages whose safety depends in part on their acquiescence. The spectrum of available truth must be severely limited when the embeds cannot always report what they know, and their independent colleagues are rarely given anything to report.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration repeats its empty claims like a mantra: War is justified because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. We have no ambition but to liberate Iraq. We will return the oil fields to the people. We will be welcomed by cheering crowds. Civilian casualties will be minimal. Saddam is already dead.
With so much hype in the air, any show of skepticism is welcome. Last week on CNN, Aaron Brown seemed incredulous when Bush professed to care about Medicare and education. Christiane Amanpour scoffed at the claim that the U.S. has more allies than we did for the Gulf War. On Sunday, Blitzer pressed Rumsfeld on how he can be so sanguine about his ability to limit civilian casualties.
Now that the hawks are asking taxpayers for up to $80 billion, journalists should treat them like investors who are issuing “forward looking” statements about an IPO that may or may not come to pass. The next time Rumsfeld says he doubts “there’s ever been the degree of free press coverage” as there is now, will someone please ask for his definition of a free press?