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Pride and prejudice

Can TV news cover a war without constantly waving the flag? Should we expect it to?

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003


[Times art: Rossie Newson]

As TV news outlets gear down from the most covered war in human history, I've been thinking a lot about what we learned about American news media during the three-week conflict - particularly when it comes to war journalism and objectivity.

Experienced journalists know that pure objectivity - divorcing any preconceived attitudes or opinions from news coverage - is a myth. The very act of choosing to tell a story about one event and not another involves the subjective art of news judgment and valuation.

But what about independence? Is it possible for U.S. news media - especially TV - to cover a controversial, U.S.-led war relatively free from the influence of patriotism, politics or pandering? And is that a desirable goal?

As you might expect, those who are involved with covering the Iraq war say yes to both questions.

"It's a totally unfair accusation that we can be close to a story and not maintain our objectivity," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News, citing the network's early scoop about the U.S. soldier who rolled grenades into the tent of his fellow soldiers - a story that came from an "embedded" journalist traveling with the military.

Still, ask McGinnis whether reporters should, for instance, refer to Iraqi soldiers as "the enemy" - a verbal cue that some critics say links journalists' reports too closely to the U.S military perspective - and she answers decisively.

"I think the Iraqis are the enemy, and it would be crazy to say that they weren't," she added. "Every reporter on our staff is a patriot - an American who would like to see America win this war."

But Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin (and former St. Petersburg Times employee), said U.S. media outlets pulling for an American troop victory in their coverage clashes with the traditional image of journalists as neutral observers during news events.

"In war time . . . you have this strange situation where journalists are saying "You should trust us, we're neutral - but we're patriotic,' " said Jensen, a fierce critic of the war who has written a commentary on U.S. TV war coverage for Arab-centered news network Al Jazeera's Web site.

"Journalists are saying, "We're neutral, but we're not,' " he added. "Because we live in a country that so overwhelmingly accepts the concept of patriotism, we don't question that. And you have people who go a step beyond that and say, once the war starts, your job is to help the home team win."

Jensen's words hold the ring of truth for this critic, who spent long hours chronicling the downside of 24-hour war TV coverage in the United States: excessive nationalism, emphasizing American lives while offering less detail on Iraqi lives, avoiding unpleasant historical truths of past U.S. connections to Arab despots; and selective reports on suffering in the war.

It's not as if I expected TV news outlets to suddenly forget they or their audience were Americans, with friends, loved ones and fellow citizens fighting this war.

But I've felt incredibly conflicted about the shape of news coverage on U.S. TV outlets - sharing the hope that the war would conclude quickly with an American victory, while feeling shamed by the rampant jingoism onscreen.

And as TV news resumes more conventional reporting patterns - embedded reporters heading home, empty punditry rising on cable news, more stories on domestic U.S. subjects - the ultimate lesson of the Iraq war for TV seems obvious: Patriotism pays.

Consider third-ranked cable news outlet MSNBC, now running promotional ads featuring a photo montage of soldiers in Iraq as a piano version of The Star Spangled Banner tinkles in the background, ending with the phrase, "the home of the brave." Its news ratings rose 350 percent during wartime coverage.

But such promotions seem nothing more than a bald-faced attempt to tug the heartstrings of viewers awash in America's victory over Iraq, tainting an international news organization that's supposed to offer independent coverage.

MSNBC president Erik Sorenson took a different view. "MSNBC covered U.S. troops, U.S. casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties during the course of this war," said Sorenson in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Given the Iraqi regime's track record toward their own civilians, drawing conclusions about civilian casualties were certainly a tricky business journalistically. Finally, I see nothing wrong with an American TV news network focusing on American troops and their efforts, many of which were in fact brave and heroic."

At ABC News, spokesman Jeffrey Schneider invoked an old journalist's credo: If people on both sides of the issue say you're favoring the other side, then you must be doing something right.

"We get a lot of criticism from every conceivable side of things . . . people who are staunchly for the war and people against the war," Schneider said. "Peter's job is to ask questions, and he does that superbly. I don't think he ever indicates a preference for one answer or another - he gets the discussion going."

The "Peter" in Schneider's sentence is ABC anchor Peter Jennings. For years, Jennings has been criticized by advocacy groups (and by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales) who claim his reports reveal a liberally pro-Arab or antiwar bias.

One item, featured on the Media Research Center's Web site, denounces Jennings for failing to describe U.S. forces as liberators of Iraq, saying he often attributes the phrase to "others" or "many." Another item criticized ABC News for making "sure viewers understood that Arab media see the U.S. as occupiers of Iraq."

"What you get is a withering cynicism about America and its motives," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the MRC, a group that often criticizes mainstream media outlets regarding signs of liberal bias. "That's not necessarily balanced journalism."

Graham has a point, when he notes that Jennings often seems personally irritated by the ongoing conflict and tremendously skeptical of U.S. government claims. But it seems downright bizarre to criticize a journalist for being overly skeptical - which is pretty much the job description, after all.

The real problem, for some is the anchor's insistence on regularly featuring voices critical of the war, particularly from the Arab world. As ABC News' former Beirut bureau chief, Jennings knows that understanding Arab attitudes in that region is key to America's future there.

But considering that World News Tonight's ratings dropped 21 percent in the first 16 days of the war, those who have already turned "supporting the troops" into a euphemism for supporting the war may have decided they won't tolerate such skeptical reporting.

"Conservatives are worried . . . can the media undermine public support for the war and lead us down a path where the war is lost?" Graham said. "Basically, the right is concerned that the media's going to sour everyone on the war and the left is concerned the media won't sour anyone on it."

There are some who cast the issue as a typical conservative/liberal struggle, arguing that the pro-patriotism approach of MSNBC and Fox News counterbalances the perceived liberalism of CNN and mainstream TV networks.

But mainstream media's socially liberal tendencies - in line with the attitudes of average Americans with similar income and education - do not push networks nearly as far to the left as Fox News, in particular, tilts to the right. (CNN's admission that it suppressed stories in Iraq for fear its employees would be killed, which Fox News has delighted in excavating, seems a separate issue.)

Jensen, at the University of Texas, doubted one voice, even a network news anchor's, could alter the current dynamic. "It's not the occasional voice that's allowed in (that proves independence)," he said. "It's which voices, day after day, are allowed to dominate the debate. It's the administration officials, retired military generals and former (government) officials."

Cues from foreign media

One antidote I've always prescribed for U.S. media cheerleading is foreign media reports, particularly the British Broadcasting Corp.

With a population less solidly supportive of the Iraq war, BBC World News reports have offered much more skeptical coverage of the hostilities (the newscasts air at 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. weekdays on WUSF-Ch. 16; and at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the BBC America digital cable channel).

One recent story illustrated America's racial gap regarding support of the war - a majority of black Americans oppose the hostilities - profiling black antiwar activists in a story I hadn't yet seen on American TV news.

The BBC also featured less of some staples of U.S. war coverage, including retired military experts and profiles of soldiers fighting the war (in particular, no embedded reporters calling soldiers' families back home to arrange on-camera reunions).

"What we are trying to do is give the broadest possible range of opinions . . . to give voice to everyone who has a point of view (and) let audiences judge for themselves," said Adrian Van Klaveren, head of news gathering for the BBC.

One area of concern for BBC news executives: precise phrases and words used repeatedly in coverage.

"Why is the Republican guard always elite?" Van Klaveren said. "Why does all resistance come in pockets? Are we trying to demean it? Each (phrase) does carry some sort of value judgment. Clearly in war, if you've got a nation divided, you've got to think hard about issues of tone."

But some American TV news executives grouse privately that overseas news outlets are simply reflecting the antiwar stances of their populations, serving super-skeptical accounts of the war that play on existing sympathies in Europe, Britain and elsewhere.

Tone remains an important question in the United States, where the public backlash against those who spoke out against the war (buy any Dixie Chicks CDs lately?) raises the question: Can TV news outlets hip-deep in fierce ratings battles afford to communicate all sides of these issues?

"When you're in the United States today, I'm just amazed by the extent to which all you see is the American viewpoint, the advancing American troops, and very little in the way of collateral damage," said 60 Minutes II correspondent Bob Simon, in an April 8 appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. "With this atmosphere in the United States, I think reporters are very cautious about being critical because they can be perceived as being unpatriotic."

Bill McLaughlin - a former CBS News staffer with experience covering war in Vietnam and Cambodia, who now teaches communications at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut - said Americans have changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I don't think we've realized how much we have changed," said McLaughlin. "In the big picture scheme of things, the majority of news media coverage is populist - it's pro-war, it's cheerleading, it's flag-waving. Which is helped by the immutable fact that Saddam Hussein is one of history's worst creations . . . a psychopathic serial killer in charge of a country."

"We' vs. "the enemy'

A spokesman for Fox News declined to discuss how the channel reconciles traditional journalism values of independence and impartiality with its coverage, which this critic and others (including theBaltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune) have noted for its pro-military, pro-war stances.

A few examples: hiring Iran-Contra scandal figure, conservative commentator and retired lieutenant colonel Oliver North as an embedded reporter; including the U.S. flag in their onscreen logo and sets, constant use of "we" in reference to U.S. military units and "the enemy" in talking about the Iraqi military, and more.

Aly Colon, an instructor on the ethics faculty of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), said Fox's emergence as the top-rated cable news channel in wartime may encourage a shift in the very idea of journalistic independence in major news outlets.

"In some ways, Fox may be a precursor of the back-to-the-future movement in journalism," said Colon, recalling that U.S. newspapers in the 1800s often reflected politically partisan tones. "(Back then) you'd have five or six newspapers in a town . . . You'd pick up the one that reflected your world view. If the people (watching Fox) felt they were being heard and listened to and hearing their voices on the other networks, then Fox wouldn't have the same clout."

Already, MSNBC features a waving American flag onscreen and uses the Pentagon's Operation Iraqi Freedom tagline as the name for its war news coverage, like Fox News.

There's its "America's Bravest" segment, where viewers can send photos of loved ones serving in the war for addition to a massive tribute wall. And noted conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage and Pensacola-based former U.S. congressman Joe Scarborough have prominent roles as commentators and anchors on the channel.

"We're an American news company with an American audience covering American troops in harm's way," MSNBC president Sorenson said in his e-mail. "An American flag seems an apt image for our graphics and taking note of specific men and women in uniform in this conflict has been well-received by our viewers."

Who can argue with paying tribute to those risking life and limb in America's armed forces? But such moves are also a cynical exploitation of viewers' emotions, making it tougher to fully communicate contrary points of view.

Indeed, TV news consultants Frank Magid Associates have cautioned clients that viewer turnoffs in war coverage include reports on Iraqi casualties, reports on Iraqi prisoners of war, stories about local residents of Iraqi descent and stories about antiwar protests.

As viewers accessed a wide array of news sources in print, on TV and online to stay informed about the war, they may have learned another lesson: How outlets present their news is sometimes just as important as what they report.

"I'd say, "News buyer beware,' " said the Poynter Institute's Colon. "I think it's been TV's strength to bring you immediate intimacy. But there could be more thoughtful advance thinking about the other components to the war, the Arab world and the international scene . . . which holds a lot of issues that were almost hidden by the barrage of war coverage."

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