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Blitz on your screen is ultimate in reality TV


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2003

At first, it felt like the world's largest video game:

MSNBC's countdown clock, ticking off the seconds to President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq.

Retired generals on every TV channel, providing play-by-play while drawing markers on high-tech maps, like Monday Night Football's John Madden.

Then came footage Sunday from Iraqi TV of American POWs. And more footage of soldiers wounded by one of their own in a grenade attack. Even live reports from journalists in the middle of heated battles.

Suddenly, TV screens that had been showing us Joe Millionaire a few weeks earlier had to get serious about covering what could be a brutal, extended war. And American TV viewers had to figure out how they felt about it all.

"Are we watching it like we're watching a movie and accept it in the same sense as some kind of fiction?" asked Bill Kovach, director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "Or will it, in the end, if things really get tough, help us think a little more clearly about the cost of the decision to go to war?"

The scope of coverage is unprecedented. An estimated 5,000 journalists are on the case, with more than 500 reporters "embedded" with military units in the war zone, with many often delivering real-time reports live to news outlets across the globe.

An enterprising viewer could mainline war coverage 24 hours a day.

And there's a large audience apparently doing just that; nine out of 10 are following the war mainly on TV, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. That means television already is playing a defining role in how Americans perceive the war.

"For TV, this is a godsend ... because it's image driven (and) the content is irrelevant," said Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered war and terrorism for the New York Times, among other newspapers.

"When (the military) looked at a critique of how they handled the press (in the first Persian Gulf War, circa 1991), they found that press restrictions were so severe, they didn't get their own message out," Hedges said. "And they've rectified that now. They are getting their message out."

But in this war, context may have been the first casualty, as the broadcast networks flooded viewers with continuous coverage.

"The sheer volume of what (viewers) see, I think, has lent credence to the term, 'the fog of war,' " said Walter Dean, a former manager at CBS News and senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism think tank.

By Tuesday, the networks were providing some perspective, as ABC, CBS and NBC presented entertainment programming in the first two hours of prime time, turning over the last hour to a summary of the day's action -- just what the doctor ordered for media-saturated viewers.

So, too, has the TV coverage grown more critical. On NBC's Today show Tuesday, paid consultant and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey suggested military planners didn't bring enough troops to the battlefield and erred by roaring past smaller towns -- a decided change from the rah-rah tone of early press coverage.

Among the cable news channels, Fox News is clearly the most pro-America; its war-coverage logo transforms into an eagle. CNN is blindingly comprehensive, with 200 staffers in the Middle East, and MSNBC -- tapping NBC News resources, such as National Geographic Explorer correspondent Peter Arnett, one of a shrinking number of Western journalists still in Baghdad -- falls somewhere between the two.

TV has even turned its unblinking eye on itself. CNN anchor Aaron Brown has held regular discussions with media critics and newspaper journalists about the shape of coverage. ABC reporter Robert Krulwich Tuesday offered viewers a guide to the TV reporting, noting that the morphing Fox logo indicated that the network was "aligning itself with America's power."

"The media has managed to make this all about them," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "You watch this footage and (anchors) are almost acting like spoiled kids: 'We've told you about the missile attack, now let's talk about how we're covering it.' "

Among the biggest controversies: when and whether to air Iraqi TV footage of American POWs being questioned.

CNN's Brown seemed particularly angry that the Arab-centered news network Al Jazeera showed the entire video (including footage of dead soldiers). During a recent interview, he asked the channel's chief correspondent, "Is there not a line between sanitizing the news and simply putting something on TV because it is gruesome?"

Some experts say the difference is the U.S. media's reluctance to show casualties -- particularly Iraqi civilians -- which results in viewers of European and foreign media seeing much more death onscreen than Americans.

"I was shocked that the big push coming to shove wasn't the Pentagon censoring some embedded journalist, but the American media establishment deciding not to show people the images (of POWs)," said Syracuse University's Thompson. "I think you obfuscate the image of war if you don't show that war produces awful images."

With flashy graphics (from CBS's "America at War" to NBC's "Target: Iraq") and commercials touting their coverage, TV networks seem dangerously close to turning this momentous event into just another reality TV show.

But Thompson warned that those who feel TV has trivialized this conflict may be reacting more to the medium than the message.

"This is a miniseries, but that doesn't mean this is all trivialized," he said. "Anything that's beamed into someone's living room will take the sacred out of it. All of a sudden, it's like your crazy uncle is telling you something really important."

Fox News' jingoistic style won the ratings war in the first five days, attracting an average 4-million viewers and damaging CNN's attempt to "own" war coverage as it did during the first Persian Gulf conflict. CNN countered that its extended reach drew a total 90-million viewers during the war's first five days, compared to 67-million who watched Fox. (Because those who watch Fox watch it longer, its average viewership is higher.)

But nothing embodies the complexities -- and ambiguities -- of war coverage more than embedded journalists.

Early on, reports from embedded TV reporters seemed filled with "'gee whiz" journalism -- marveling at the U.S. military's technology and prowess.

"Imagine for a moment a giant wave of steel sweeping across the southern Iraqi desert, and imagine that almost hourly that wave grows in strength and numbers," reported CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers, whose early stories seemed particularly breathless and laudatory.

But TV news executives praise the embedding program, noting that military press conferences often confirm news already reported -- as opposed to the first Persian Gulf war, where most news came from tightly-controlled briefings.

"Here, you can pretty much report what you like, on an ongoing basis," said CNN's Ryan Chilcote, a veteran war correspondent traveling with the 101st Airborne Division.

Still, as videophones and specially designed tank-mounted cameras deliver real time reports, some experts wonder if the tail isn't wagging the dog.

"We're not using the technology, we're allowing it to use us," said the Committee of Concerned Journalists' Kovach. "It distracts us from doing serious reporting and the rest of the time is filled with speculation."

In the end, the true scope and impact of this war's coverage may not be known until the conflict is long over.

"The best journalism may come after these (embedded journalists) get home," Thompson said. "They're collecting stuff, they'll write books about it and we'll really get the full story."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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