A War of Words, Sights and Sounds, Hearts and Minds

Words and pictures may be overrated as enduring metaphors. But tell that to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to Iraqi leaders who are under fierce attack from the U.S.

Like many of you, they've been watching this one-sided war evolve in spurts on television, as both sides check to see how successful -- or unsuccessful -- they've been in manipulating the media.

Self-serving propaganda is the agenda of all governments, whether democratic or autocratic. The scenario here: The U.S. wants to be seen as conducting a humane war of liberation -- with high regard for the lives of innocent noncombatants -- while also scaring Iraqis into swift capitulation. Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime presents itself as a victim, while hoping also to project strength and defiance on the home front.

This image combat intensified in the last 24 hours when TV cameras put out live pictures of all of Baghdad appearing to be in flames during Friday's massive U.S. air assault, striking images that, when supplemented by comments he didn't like, irked Rumsfeld greatly. He stressed that at Friday's televised Pentagon briefing.

Meanwhile, live pictures of U.S. military units rolling through the desert with reporters toward Baghdad, seemingly unopposed, seem to be what led Iraq to punish CNN on Friday by expelling its four-person crew from the capital.

The bombing's sights and sounds were spectacular. Reporting for NBC and MSNBC, veteran Peter Arnett coolly described the thunderous missile strike from the 11th floor of Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, saying, "The vibration ... almost knocked me off my feet."

Three floors above him, young freelancer Richard Engel did the same on ABC, speaking in nervous gasps while anchor Peter Jennings in New York repeatedly advised him to "take a deep breath."

"I'm watching half of Baghdad, I think, be destroyed," reported a worried-sounding Engel as TV pictures showed a city blanketed by orange haze and smoke. Jennings assured Engel that the Pentagon had promised U.S. air attacks would be "very calculated" and "specific," with a 90% chance of hitting the Iraqi leadership and Baghdad government buildings being targeted.

Engel wondered aloud about the other 10%. "Do you have any word from the Pentagon about what's coming down on us?" he asked Jennings uneasily.

As if on cue, Rumsfeld opened the Pentagon briefing not long after that, attacking an unnamed TV reporter for comparing the Baghdad airstrikes to imprecise World War II bombing campaigns that caused massive damage to nonmilitary targets.

"There is no comparison," he protested during a stern lecture to reporters. "We have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamed of."

Rumsfeld also noted the built-in distortion of TV, notably when it comes to war coverage, the medium's slender reality usually accommodating only what's within its keyhole. "What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we're seeing are slices of the war" through the prisms of individual reporters and cameras, he added.

As if Rumsfeld should be fussing, for most of these combat moments are pleasing to the Pentagon.

Americans get plenty of this war on TV -- along with worshipful commentary by retired military officers hired as media analysts -- but rare glimpses of the multitudes protesting it across the globe.

It's also getting exactly the pictures it wants from TV reporters attached to military units driving toward Baghdad, however stunning their segments are pictorially.

One is NBC's David Bloom, looking almost extraterrestrial in the greenish light of a night scope while airing round-the-clock live reports from atop a tank in a convoy rumbling through the Iraqi desert.

The image: an unstoppable force.

It was the gung-ho tone of Walt Rodgers' reports on CNN that seems to have most outraged Iraqi officialdom, though. He's been his own "Shock and Awe," doing almost everything but lead a charge himself while riding with a cavalry unit that he said "may be the greatest assembly of tanks in history, and all are punching toward Baghdad."

So great that he titled it the "steel wave" and added: "If the Iraqis are watching this, it will do them well to see how much power is coming in on them." It was a warning, if not a call to surrender.

The next day, CNN's Baghdad crew -- among the few U.S. journalists remaining in the besieged city -- was kicked out by the Iraqis, who called the cable network a mouthpiece for the U.S.

In Rodgers' case, that was right, one government's mouthpiece being another's patriot.


Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic. He can be contacted at howard. rosenberg@latimes.com

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