Media struggling through `the fog of war'

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.

At NPR, Jenkins' operating theory about information from the military is that "in one form or another, they never tell you the truth. They've been proven wrong too many times."

Or, as MSNBC President Erik Sorenson puts it, "We'll find out in five or 10 years what the real truth is."

Note of pessimism

Supporters of open access to information now -- or at least more open than in past conflicts -- were probably not made optimistic by a Rumsfeld briefing last month in which he both pledged never to lie to journalists and quoted Winston Churchill's dictum about truth in war: "In wartime, truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

Rumsfeld has been particularly effective at plugging the usual flow of leaks in his department that journalists rely on, ABC correspondent John McWethy reported on "Nightline" Tuesday.

In such an information vacuum, television's hunger for images can backfire. Networks did an awkward about-face Wednesday, for instance, as CNN and MSNBC were among those who announced they would no longer play an ominous videotaped statement from a spokesman for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network that they had aired the day before.

With a day's reflection (and a phone call to news chiefs from the President's National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice), the channels reverted to paraphrasing what the man said, fearing that the tape might contain coded messages aimed at terrorist sleeper cells.

But that tape was also widely played through the Arab world on the Al Jazeera satellite television service, meaning any coded messages could be easily transmitted to American-based terrorists, with or without CNN.

New world media order

The emergence of Al Jazeera highlights the new world media order, which also includes ready American access to BBC and Canadian TV news reports and to virtually all significant media worldwide on the Internet. During the Gulf War, everybody, worldwide, watched CNN. Now they have choices, and CNN is airing translated reports from Al Jazeera's man in Kabul.

Indeed, after one such on Wednesday, CNN anchor Aaron Brown was moved to apologize for the tenuous nature of much information thus far and for its potential as propaganda, by both sides. "That limits our ability to know, and consequently yours," Brown said. "It's something we continue to work on."

Brown's boss, Eason Jordan, asserts that in terms of providing coverage, "The more challenging times actually are ahead of us. When and if ground forces get involved, that becomes a particularly challenging proposition."

Jordan points out that in Iraq during the Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tolerated some Western journalists in Baghdad in order to get his message out. And on the other side of the lines, "you had large teams of Western journalists being herded around by U.S. military minders in Saudi Arabia. There's nothing similar to that in this case," Jordan says.

Another complication in covering this war is that it is the first in modern American history with a real homeland threat, and that has contributed to full-throated popular support that can be at odds with what ought to be journalists' natural skepticism.

Despite the trickle of official information this week detailing what, if any, success the Afghanistan bombings had, MSNBC's Sorenson says he is not hearing from viewers clamoring for more.

"If anything," he says, "I have complaints like, `Be careful. Don't give away too much information. Don't let the bad guys win.' It's a whole different situation."

What is happening, he suspects, is that Pentagon officials have moved toward a policy of "non-information rather than disinformation."

The other dominant thread of e-mail, Sorenson says, speaks to fears of a further attack, imploring MSNBC: "`Don't forget about us at home. What about anthrax? What about the incident at O'Hare Monday?'"

It's a tension that's echoed in the news business. During the Gulf War, "I felt as a media executive that my troops over in Dahrain and Kuwait were in jeopardy, but I was never worried about my people at the broadcast center in New York," Sorenson says. "Now we're on edge."