Papers can filter the facts, friction

For the democracies, modern war is a test not only of men and women but of media.

Each succeeding conflict brings its unique physical and intellectual challenges; each brings some new governmental strategy for managing the coverage. News organizations -- and news gathering technologies -- rise or fall on their ability to overcome these challenges and to render what may be their most urgent public service.

No conflict in human history has been reported with as much immediacy and from as many angles as the one now underway. So, three days into this second Gulf War, how are the U.S. news media doing?

We asked four seasoned media professionals, all with first-hand experience of journalism and war, but none of whom is involved in the current coverage, how they are following events. All agreed that they are relying most heavily on newspapers, a surprising consensus in a moment that most expected would be dominated by new media and new television technologies. But there was unanimity that, with the exception of National Public Radio, much of the real-time electronic reporting has translated the fog of war into a fog of facts.

Newspapers, all agreed, have stepped forward to play a critical role, timely but forced by their own technology to operate at just enough remove from the particular day's events to synthesize and analyze information. In the new picture of war the press is painting, it turns out the middle distance is a strategic vantage point.

Peter Osnos, publisher and chief executive of Public Affairs Press, which specializes in topical nonfiction books, had some thoughts on why. He recalled hearing Internet theorist Esther Dyson "make the point that we're not even in the Information Age anymore; we're in the Attention Age. It's not the facts you can get. It's what you can absorb."

Osnos, who covered the Vietnam War for the Washington Post and whose son Evan is a Chicago Tribune correspondent traveling with the 1st Marines, said, "The electronic reporting we're getting is in real time, but it's impossible to absorb in a way that tells us what's really going on. There's a confusion that results from too much information and not enough perspective. The other media are able to see all the pieces of the puzzle but find it impossible to put the pieces together. That's become the role of the newspapers."

Veteran radio talk show host Michael Jackson, who writes daily news commentary for his own Web site, said he finds newspapers more significant than ever and reads a dozen a day. "I think it is true because I don't think people equate print media with show business, which they certainly and correctly do with TV and radio. We are seeing the finest on-the-scene electronic reporting we've ever seen. But newspapers remain essential, not only because they have the time and space to reflect but also because they don't have to concern themselves with ratings."

Former Times foreign correspondent William Tuohy, who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting the Vietnam War, is now a London-based author. He said he finds television's coverage spotty and that of the "24-hour stations prone to pick up any rumor." And despite the proliferation of electronic images, Tuohy said he still finds newspaper maps and graphics "on the whole more helpful and authoritative than TV. The papers ... pull it all together in a more coherent, understandable way illustrated by graphics to show you how things are moving."

Veteran newspaper editor Bill Kovach, now chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said that although he finds himself "utterly dependent on newspapers because of their depth, I'm disappointed in a lot of what I'm getting. I don't see enough of the skepticism we should expect of our journalists. I understand that the emotional state of society after Sept. 11 has created a kind of communitarian sense of not wanting to go against the grain. But that's made too many reporters reluctant to ask rude or embarrassing questions of the people shaping our future."

Kovach is particularly critical of the networks' sudden willingness to spend tens of millions of dollars on dramatic war coverage after years of slashing their foreign news budgets to the bone. He also has "special concerns about their embedded reporters because of the way the image drives everything they do. I worry that TV is so invested in the drama that they've just made war their next reality show."

In the run-up to this war, many analysts expressed deep concerns about whether the journalists in front-line units might be so emotionally overwhelmed by the common experience of combat that their independence would be compromised. Some military authorities were anxious that the reporters' presence would impede soldiers and Marines under fire.

Based on the evidence of these first days, neither side had much to worry about. Embedding -- at least when it involves television correspondents -- is emerging as one of the Defense Department's greatest information coups. The endless stream of gritty, jumpy cinema verite images from the Iraqi desert has so transfixed the networks and cable news operations that nobody seems much bothered by the absence of regular briefings and command-level news conferences in the gulf that are critical to a genuine understanding of the war's progress.

Friday, as night fell over Baghdad and the allies' massive bombardment of the city was but moments away, Bill Hemmer, CNN's fresh-faced young anchor in the gulf, light-heartedly bantered with New York Times reporter Jane Perlez over U.S. commander Tommy Frank's unwillingness to make himself available to reporters. Not one briefing of any sort, they pointed out, had yet been conducted on the elaborate and expensive soundstage the Pentagon had shipped from America to Qatar via FedEx for that purpose.

In the end, Hemmer concluded, it didn't really matter because this time around "images clearly are the star."

As Kovach put it, "I feel less confident than ever that I understand how we as a nation moved to this point. Too many of my sources of information have let me down. I have never felt as much at sea as I do in this new sea of information."

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