The ‘gee whiz’ war
In just one memorable image from the war in Iraq, there was stately anchor Ted Koppel -- whipped by blowing sand and clad in fatigues and dark glasses -- as he traveled with an Army unit as it marched toward Baghdad. Yet for all the technical wizardry responsible for that and other unprecedented front-line dispatches, ABC’s “Nightline” has been equally notable for a segment that seeks to put “the fog of war” into focus, dubbed “The Big Picture.”
Technological advances, from videophones to night-vision photography, initially defined and perhaps drove TV’s coverage of this 21st century war -- whether it was CNN’s Aaron Brown’s marveling at a live firefight in Umm al Qasr or NBC’s David Bloom’s shouting over an M-88 tank recovery vehicle as the 3rd Infantry rumbled through the Iraqi desert, an exchange “Today” host Matt Lauer called “astonishing.”
A little over a week into the conflict, however, some wonder whether those images eclipsed a larger picture of what’s transpiring. And even some TV journalists have acknowledged that early reports were often more interesting than illuminating -- providing what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned were merely “slices of the war.” Already, TV news organizations, stung by some initial missteps, are fine-tuning coverage.
“We’ve never had a war like this, and we got inundated by close-ups,” said “Nightline” executive producer Tom Bettag, explaining why the show introduced “The Big Picture,” a detailed overview of the day’s events. “Fairly soon, we said somebody’s got to take a step back and give a little perspective.”
While bowing in part to financial imperatives -- with hard-to-postpone events like the NCAA basketball tournament and Academy Awards to consider -- the major networks quickly pulled back to more restrained, sporadic war coverage, generally devoting an hour to the conflict in prime time.
After around-the-clock reports for several days, the all-news cable networks have also brought back such talk programs as Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and MSNBC’s “Hardball” and are once again running ads.
Thus far, the media have generally received high marks from the public. A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that two-fifths labeled the coverage “excellent” and nearly 80% respondents rated it favorably. Almost 90% said TV was their primary news source.
CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, traveling with British troops in the Basra region, says “embedding” and technology have generated enormous amounts of valuable information but added that she would like to see CNN doing more in-depth pieces.
“While the live [coverage] is exciting, it can’t give you everything in a concise and broader context way,” she said, by phone from Iraq. “Our network has gotten away from taped packages; they think ‘live’ brings more spontaneity. ‘Keep it moving, keep it moving’ is what they tell us.”
CNN, which has been promoting its coverage as being closer to the action and “all day,” has added brief wrap-ups of the day’s events, but executive producer Marylynn Ryan, overseeing nine hours of war coverage daily, says live material from embedded reporters “is working for us.... We’re out there breaking some of the news.”
Indeed, contextual reporting is hard-pressed to compete with the drama of material Amanpour’s colleague Walter Rodgers is providing from his position in the Iraqi desert.
On Thursday morning, Rodgers abruptly cut off a report when troops feared they might be under fire, as the camera panned the sky. The day before, he told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer that sources were telling him a 1,000-vehicle convoy of Iraqi elite troops was heading south from Baghdad at a rapid clip -- a report that later proved to be dramatically overstated -- and “we will probably come under attack some time this evening.”
TV journalists were agog at first about the technological breakthroughs. CNN anchor Bill Hemmer at one point called the satellite-fed pictures “the star of this war,” and NBC promoted exclusive technology allowing the network to “immediately send crisp, real-time moving pictures” directly via satellite.
Yet such innovations have been both a blessing and a curse, some critics say. Although the all-news cable channels have experienced significant ratings gains since the war began, these critics contend that the axiom “more is less” applies, with the major networks actually providing more insightful coverage.
“By breaking and thinking about it, they’re doing it better,” said John J. Schulz, a professor of international communication at Boston University.
Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, noted that the general rule has been to offer more tightly edited packages during the evening news and newsmagazines, with extensive live reports on cable or within morning programs such as the “Today” show.
“This is not science; it’s often instinct,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the trap of just showing off the technology, because the viewer will quickly tire of that. I do think we need to be careful about not overdoing it if there’s no point to it, but so far so good.”
Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalists, said context is often hard for reporters to find, given government concerns about troop safety. “Release of information puts people at risk,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s not because the journalists aren’t providing context but because they don’t have it.”
Marcy McGinnis, CBS News’ senior vice president of news coverage, said it’s up to producers to combine feeds from embedded reporters with other elements and “show the audience the big picture.” She added that reporters’ first-person accounts are helping illustrate the war in fresh ways.
With frequent repetition of information from anchors and “news alert” crawls across the screen, the cable networks have tried to keep viewers interested even when the flow of news might not be keeping pace with coverage.
MSNBC has added a “Military Minute” every half-hour and a nightly wrap-up at 8, hosted by Lester Holt. MSNBC President Erik Sorenson said it is a “daunting challenge” not to become addicted to images that are “so stunning and unprecedented. But we’re already straightening ourselves out.”
“The audience has an incredibly short attention span. The travelogue material coming out at the beginning, what was ‘gee whiz’ three days ago, is no longer ‘gee whiz,’ and demands for substance come into play,” Sorenson said. “Information is flowing fast and furious like never before. Whether it is accurate and in the correct context and perspective, it may be years -- decades -- before we know the answer.”
The TV coverage has already provided fodder for parody. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” featured a segment last week in which the program’s “embedded” correspondent twitched and spoke haltingly, before host Jon Stewart asked,"Why are you moving like that, all herky-jerky? You’re on satellite, not videophone.”
Despite the raw power and immediacy of the live coverage, experts caution that TV can convey only so much and to recognize those limits.
“People need to wake up to the fact these are not video games,” said Boston University’s Schulz, noting that much of the early coverage was “antiseptic and long-distance.... Television gives us the easy answers; it always has. It’s not the full picture.”