At the University of Utah Union desks a day after war erupted, students who normally can't be coaxed into opening a newspaper were lined up for copies and were dismayed when they were sold out. The television sets, usually tuned to soap operas with desultory interest, were mobbed as well. As in all great events, the war fed a hunger for details, scant though they were even through day and night network coverage and the augmented local news programs.
Some observations on the media blitz:- EARLY REPORTS especially were fuzzy, perhaps necessarily, though Defense Secretary Dick Cheney urged the press corps in his first war press conference to be precise. We tend to read a lot of our own hopes into battlefield accounts. There were continual reports on the first day, for instance, of how the Iraqi elite Revolutionary Guard had been "decimated." Decimated means to destroy or kill a great but unspecified number. Whether decimated means neutralized remains to be seen.
Lack of precision is a danger in the way the news is displayed as well as reported.
The Tribune, for example, bannered, "Air Armada Routs Iraq" on Thursday morning. There was no support for that statement. The lead paragraph said "wave after wave of fighter bombers hit Baghdad in hopes of routing Iraq from Kuwait." Similarly, the Deseret News Thursday night took a flight of fancy in headlining " `Desert Storm' rumbles through Iraq and Kuwait." Unfortunately, much hardship may lie ahead before our forces actually rumble through.
I was also surprised by the Deseret News headline "Congress stands up to Iraq." That may be a valid interpretation of the action Congress took, but it is arguable, and certainly a matter of opinion. Another argument in the debates was that we were already standing up to Iraq and that war was unnecessary.
- MUCH DISTURBING is the tendency of many professed patriots to excoriate any who have not "supported our president" as un-American. Dissent with policy, even foreign policy, is wholly in the American tradition and in no way shows a lack of respect or concern for our fighting men and women.
Dissent was a long time coming, however. There was far too little of it in the early days of our involvement. Two journalism publications this month note the supine posture of the press until lately.
In the Washington Journalism Review, Vincent Carroll, editor of Denver's Rocky Mountain Review, writes that "early on the Fourth Estate decided it would operate as a handmaiden to the president's policy. Only after Nov. 8 would second thoughts set in. As scarce as maverick voices have been, dissident editorial pages have been even rarer."
Carroll's paper was the only one among the nation's 25 largest that argued against military action even as a last resort. Quill magazine cites many press ombudsmen who, as the buildup gained momentum, cautioned their papers against cheerleading for the administration.
Since the tendency of most people and most media is to rally round in times of crisis, dissent will probably be even more limited until the war ends or if it drags out. Even the New York Times, which continually in the past months urged better articulation of our gulf aims, editorialized that the bombing was "a just message in behalf of honorable goals."
- "TRUTH IS THE FIST CASUALTY" in war. That trenchant 1917 observation by Sen. Hiram Johnson has been quoted frequently in the glut of national press comment on the press role.
From the outset of our involvement in the gulf, there have been significant controls on correspondents. As early as October reporters were not allowed, for example, to witness a Marine mock amphibious assault though it was designed to "send a message" and was not a security problem. The Saudis didn't want the press there.
Problems of access are of course greatly compounded once the shooting starts. Censorship, however, often has less to do with national security than with military convenience or avoiding embarrassment. In Grenada, reporters were excluded in the first hours ostensibly for their own safety, actually to be out of the way until the situation was sanitized. A pool system set up to meet press complaints flopped in Panama and proved inadequate in August in Saudi Arabia.
- THE TRAINING AND DEDICATION of reporters is also vital.
A British journalist, Philip Knightly, in a wonderful book about war correspondence called appropriately "The First Casualty" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), notes that throughout history, "Too few looked back and tried to see what it all added up to, too few have probed beyond the official version of events to expose the lies and half truths, too few tried to analyze what it all means."
- A MAJOR PHENOMENON of the war coverage is that the reporters, largely because of their visibility on satellite reports from the front, are themselves a large part of the story.
CNN's amazing reporting from Baghdad by telephone during the first bombings and the reactions of reporters for all networks in those first few minutes of the missile attacks on Israel will stand out as landmarks in war reportage. CNN's and later ABC's and the British ITN reports used on American TV were reminiscent of the "This Is London" reports in which Edward R. Murrow described Britain under Luftwaffe pounding in World War II. The scenes of reporters being admonished on camera by the anchor to put on their gas masks as the missiles started hitting Tel Aviv may be the most vivid image of war reportage ever distributed.
- SOME OF THE GREATEST reporters are, fortunately, on station. Peter Arnett, one of the three CNN men who preferred to stay in their hotel room to view the bombing pyrotechnics rather than retreat to their hotel bomb shelter, is perhaps best known. Knightly describes him as "a tough New Zealander who spent more time [13 yearsT in Vietnam [for the Associated PressT than any other correspondent . . . determined to observe with as much professional detachment as possible, to report a scene with accuracy and clarity."
- BALANCING TASTE with the need to know is going to be more and more of a problem. I was disgusted with a USA Today story a day before the war erupted about a government mortician whose staff, "if shooting starts, would be able to handle 300 or more bodies a day."
Similarly, I recoiled at parts of a Tribune story about a Salt Lake doctor who had fought in the Vietnam war: "If war erupts in the Middle East wounded soldiers could pass through his bloodied hands like a conveyer belt." Where were the editors when this purple passage came across their desks?