U.S. Media Waves Flag; Critics Debate at What Price
Fri March 28, 2003 04:43 PM ET
By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The CNN early morning anchor grows impatient with the live broadcast of an Iraqi press conference just as the information minister slams the "stupidity" of Iraq's American invaders.

So she tells viewers, "All right, we are going to interrupt this press briefing right now because, of course, the U.S. government would disagree with most of what he is saying."

A Los Angeles TV reporter covers an anti-war demonstration wearing a belt with an enormous American flag buckle. Flags also dot the corners of TV screens above crawl lines declaring that this war is called "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

News readers sport American flag lapel pins. A reporter in Kuwait tells viewers back home that U.S. troops have "tuned up their weapons like an orchestra on opening night."

Patriotism has burst out all over the airwaves since the Iraq war begun -- with some broadcast news consultants saying it is good for business to play the National Anthem at least once a day and to shy away from reporting too many anti-war protests. The Washington Post's ombudsman is peppered with complaints that anti-war news is getting relegated to the back pages.

Talk show hosts are warned by one consultant that "this is not the time to take cheap shots to get reaction" because young American soldiers are in harm's way.

Some television critics call Fox, which has had the highest ratings of any cable news outlet, the "Stars and Stripes" network because it seemingly never misses a chance to praise the president or blast Saddam Hussein.


"Fox is so blatantly one-sided, it is appalling. Every time I turn it on, someone one is saying something evil about the protesters or being pro-Bush," says Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg of the network that maintains that its reporting is fair and balanced.

But Fox is far from alone in flag waving or identification with American troops and press experts are quick to note that U.S. media is not reporting for the world but for America. Reporters embedded with American troops sometimes use the word "we" as in "We're headed to Baghdad."

A large number of press critics say they are not unduly concerned about the "rah rah" quality of some reporting on the war and say that as time goes on, the reporting will become tougher and more nuanced.

They add that the system of embedding correspondents with military units has taken war reporting to new heights, a chance to show things with an immediacy not available before -- certainly not in the 1991 Gulf conflict, a war that was subjected to military censorship.


"There's a lot of criticism now that the embedded journalists are in bed with their units .... I haven't seen real examples of that," says Steve Bell, a former Vietnam war correspondent for ABC news who now teaches journalism at Ball State University in Indianapolis.

He adds, "I think we are getting good journalism, Of course they're the home team. We're Americans, they're Americas.

"When you report from a military unit consistently, you get to know the people, you are sharing their daily life, there is an emotional connection and attachment that comes with it, but ... that doesn't mean you're going to hide things that are embarrassing or negative, not if you're a good reporter."

Bell added, "You get the same thing from reporters in Baghdad who go out to the market that's been hit and you see the faces of the distraught people and you see the carnage, and you have the same kind of identification. I think that's just the power of television. I don't think it represents severely restricted or distorted journalism."

But Pulitzer Prize wining former Newsday reporter Roy Gutman said he see a huge conflict between the images that people are cheering and the reality behind those images.

Take for example, CNN's showing earlier this week of paratroopers leaping from their plane into Northern Iraq.

For media consultant Michael McVay, who advises 150 radio stations on what to play and how to play it, watching the parachute jumps were an "amazing moment. It was a brilliant decision on the part of President Bush to embed reporters with the troops because he is bringing viewers to his side."

But for Gutman, a longtime State Department reporter, the parachute jumps were symbolic of a U.S. foreign policy that both failed to head off the war or get it organized correctly.

"I watched CNN show that film over and over again and what they missed is that this is a foreign policy disaster. These 1,000 guys should not have had to fly in this way. They should have come though Turkey by land but they didn't because the Bush administration didn't win Turkish agreement and why they didn't is a big story," Gutman said.

Although he says he is dazzled by the infra-red photography and the technical achievements, neither make up for one time-honored reporting tool -- context. "We have to tell people what it means," he said.

Original URL: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=focusIraqNews&storyID=2468888

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)