Just as the international politics of the American-led war on terrorism is a maze, so is the attempt to cover the campaign.
That truth has been underscored this week as the first American bombs were dropped on Afghanistan, and the American public has seen nothing like the vivid video that came back from the Persian Gulf War, no pictures of American correspondents on a rooftop in Kabul providing play-by-play on incoming missiles.
A seminal moment came midday Monday, day two of the bombings, when CNN had its screen split between its live "exclusive" Nightscope pictures of Afghanistan, showing what appeared to be nothing, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying not much more.
"The `fog of war' takes on new meaning in this particular circumstance," says Tom Yellin, an ABC News executive producer. "It implies you're in the middle. We can't be in the middle of it. It's the fog in the distance. It's far away, and it's very foggy."
Further complicating coverage, he adds, are "the endless permutations of things that might happen."
Journalists predict that coverage will continue to be a struggle for the duration of the conflict, complicated by its likely episodic and decentralized nature, a White House-led clampdown on information, and an American public more hungry to win than they are to know.
In such a murky environment, they say, the basic journalism values of reporting and skepticism become more valuable than ever.
"The best reporting is getting to a place and assessing it yourself," says Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor of National Public Radio. "Since Vietnam, the Pentagon has made this harder and harder for reporters to do, mostly because they all blame the press for losing the war in Vietnam."
Jenkins has some 13 reporters in the area of Afghanistan and the Middle East, in the kind of all-hands-on-deck approach typical of news organizations' response, and he says his marching orders to the troops are to try to find where the Americans are.
"The game of reporting is to smoke 'em out," he says. Asked whether his team would report the presence of an American commando unit it found in, say, a northern Pakistan village, he doesn't exhibit any of the hesitation of some of his news-business colleagues, who stress that they try to factor security issues into their coverage decisions.
"You report it," Jenkins says. "I don't represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened."
In search of such information, intrepid Western reporters are trying to enter Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. A French journalist was arrested there and charged with spying, according to reports Wednesday, after he was caught trying to disguise himself as a Moslem woman. And Peter Arnett, CNN's man in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War and now a freelancer, told Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly that he is trying to get into Afghanistan himself.
Being there comes at no small risk. CNN was the only major U.S. TV outlet with a reporter in Kabul on Sept. 11, and the reporter, Nic Robertson, was all but chased out of the country.
"When the Taliban tell you they're going to rip your people apart limb by limb, that's something you never forget," says CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan.
Barring an on-the-ground presence, one of the most effective techniques reporters have found, Jenkins said, is interviewing refugees, something employed to great effect in Kosovo, and making telephone calls to sources inside restricted areas.
Journalists back home are enamored of new technology used in reporting. But while technology, from the vaunted new videophone on down to the ubiquitous cell phones, can transmit all manner of information live, it can't bolster the quality of that information.
American reporters are already on U.S. warships, but an open question is to what degree American reporters will be allowed to accompany ground troops, especially because nobody knows whether ground action will ever be more concerted than secret raids.
No news executive in his right mind expects to have a reporter accompany the Green Berets, but a coalition of news organizations has been talking with Pentagon officials to try to extract promises that the news media will be able to report firsthand on military action when feasible.
News organizations and, presumably, some segment of the public felt burned after the Gulf War, when they learned American military's tight control on information had included misleading reports about how smart the so-called "smart bombs" really were.
Media struggling through `the fog of war'
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
Los Angeles Times welcomes civil dialogue about our stories; you must register with the site to participate. We filter comments for language and adherence to our Terms of Service, but not for factual accuracy. By commenting, you agree to these legal terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.
Having technical problems? Check here for guidance.