With Media in Tow, Does Objectivity Go AWOL?

Times Staff Writers

Pentagon officials said Friday they are pleased with the way the American media have portrayed the war, but the flood of dazzling images arising from hundreds of reporters in the combat zone has so far crowded out a staple of previous conflicts: daily questioning of the top military officers directing the campaign.

More than 500 journalists are traveling with coalition forces, generating largely positive reports and images from the battlefield. Accompanying these visuals, U.S. television networks have employed a parade of military men offering detailed analyses of the war.

"We're extremely happy with the coverage," said Capt. Stewart Upton, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Central Command in Qatar.

He acknowledged that Gen. Tommy Franks had not yet met with reporters to answer their questions at the new $1.5-million media center. But a briefing was expected to occur today.

"When you don't answer questions, you open yourself up to innuendo and rumor....We know that. But there is a time for secrecy and a time for operational security," Upton said.

Officials have said they don't want to release information that could help the enemy. But they haven't had any qualms about TV and newspaper reports that closely describe troop movement -- a level of coverage that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called a historic "degree of free press coverage."

Some critics say these policies raise questions about the balance and sensitivity of wartime media coverage: How independent are reports from journalists whose very safety depends on the soldiers they are covering? And what stories are missing from American television screens -- such as the reaction of other countries to the conflict and antiwar perspectives -- as military analysts describe the latest action?

For some, the reality of death and mayhem has been lost amid the high-tech imagery beamed into American living rooms.

During a raw exchange Friday afternoon, the mother of a captain who had died hours earlier in a Kuwait helicopter crash told NBC anchor Tom Brokaw that soldiers' relatives "can't leave the TV because with every tank, every helicopter, someone's going to wonder if that's their son."

Nancy Chamberlain, mother of Capt. Jay Aubin, added in the on-air telephone interview that "all this technology you're showing is wonderful. But it's murder, it's heartbreak to see, and a lot of parents and spouses are suffering."

Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University, said the coverage has been "top-heavy with technology and military lingo."

"TV is giving us a lot of commentators who talk about military tactics, but there are other things going on in the world, crucial things, and if we're lucky, we see them in the crawl that runs beneath the main images," Gitlin said. "It's a very limiting view."

News executives, however, say they have no choice but to focus on the battlefield now, to the virtual exclusion of all other stories. Bill Shine, a producer at Fox News, said the only change he envisioned in his use of military commentators would be a shift to more experts in airborne warfare as the conflict evolves.

If coalition forces prevail, he added, military commentators would probably give way to a torrent of on-screen experts talking about political rebuilding and economic reconstruction issues in Iraq.

"The battlefield is the whole story, and you haven't seen many international stories," Shine said. "We showed some demonstrations [Thursday] night and there will be more, depending on what's happening in Iraq. The House of Representatives voted on the budget, but we had to put that in the news crawl too."

The convergence of technology, battlefield immediacy and military analysis on American television is inevitable, said Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.

"When the American military goes to war, so does American journalism," said Kalb, a former CBS and NBC correspondent. "The American soldier is trained to accomplish his mission, and it's a narrow mission. He has to take that hill, and so does journalism. It often has difficulty showing you the full terrain."

At Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar, the absence of daily media briefings has been in marked contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's regular sessions became the primary information source for hundreds of reporters who were not permitted near the front lines.

This time, hundreds of reporters placed with combat units continue to generate largely sympathetic stories. Networks have featured interviews with soldiers on the front lines, interspersed with live comments from their spouses back home. Television has shown live scenes of troops racing across the landscape, while some newspapers have described how tank drivers stuff candy bars and packs of cigarettes in every free space inside their cramped compartments.

Reporters have filed stories from the decks of aircraft carriers and inside soldiers' tents. In one brief scene, American soldiers raised and then lowered the American flag over a newly occupied Iraqi city. Television viewers have shuddered at the sound of incoming missiles as they are broadcast live from 6,000 miles away.

Even before it began, the placement of reporters with troops was "an experiment of unprecedented size and scope," said Cinny Kennard, a former CBS correspondent who teaches journalism at USC. "I just don't know if it's a good arrangement."

Although there are restrictions on what journalists can report -- and when -- Kennard is more concerned about the question of independence, suggesting that "a bond develops when you're in a situation like that. You're talking about people you form relationships with, people who keep you alive. It's an extraordinary Catch-22."

Yet this access has the potential to backfire on military officials. If reporters witness operations that go awry, "they will report that too, and then you might see the old lines of friction between the press and the military surface again," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

There have been other types of reports during the war, such as those from journalists who are not traveling with military forces and move unfettered through Baghdad and Iran, in Turkey and Jordan.

Yet most of the U.S. coverage has come from journalists traveling and living with troops in southern Iraq and on ships in the Persian Gulf.

It has added a vibrant dimension to the coverage, media observers say, but no one is confusing the pictures on television with the full reality of war. Even Rumsfeld, in a speech Friday, acknowledged that "what we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq."


Getlin reported from New York and Wharton from Qatar.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World