Covering the War, Missing the Story

April 21, 2003

The war in Iraq gave U.S. media the chance to appear before millions of viewers just as they most wishfully imagine themselves: brave, dedicated bearers of the news.

Integrated into advance military units under the Pentagon’s embedding program, reporters slogged it out under fire alongside GIs and Marines, full partners in the pluck and valor they assured us they were witnessing.

Whether the advent of embedded reporters will soften the public’s prickly opinion of news people isn’t clear. Pew Research Center polls found modest approval: 58 percent thought embedded journalists a good thing, a third thought not. People worried that reporters would spill secrets; fewer wondered if they’d tilt toward the visiting team.

But an unusually high eight in 10 found the reporting from the embedded journalists fair and objective.

Was it? And more important, did the central role that the embedded reporters play in reporting the war help the U.S. public understand its conduct, its costs — and its consequences?

The coverage — I’m talking chiefly about TV, which most Americans relied on — was both heroic and disgraceful. Journalists died in numbers disproportionate to their battlefield presence. Some offered unvarnished and eloquent accounts of the dirt, exhaustion, terror and confusion of 21st Century combat.

But the battlefield journalist knew as much, and as little, as the soldier next to him. Frontline reporters were steeped in the realities of small-unit combat, but were ignorant of the significance of what they saw. They were truly embedded, stuck fast, without mobility or context.

If their accounts were sometimes riveting, they were also unintelligible, and you could watch for hours without having a clue whether the shooting meant progress or impasse.

Having that frontline contingent replicated within the journalist corps the class divisions of the military itself, with grunts in the field and senior correspondents back at the headquarters briefings.

Oddly, while in Vietnam it was the field reporters who brought back harsh truths that undermined the official line, in Iraq the skeptical questions came from the journalistic brass at HQ. With parliamentary accountability having collapsed at home, those journalists asked the only tough questions the people running the war ever faced.

Nevertheless, it was the coverage from the embedded reporters that flooded our screens and became the fulcrum of American reportage. The air war, which was devastating and decisive, was seen only from afar. The immense destructiveness of the armored units went unrecorded.

Instead, the war was defined by the infantry’s experience, because the cameras were right there. And because the troops met resistance and drew return fire, the viewer naturally concluded there was actually a battle going on.

Sometimes there was. But overall, the Reality TV version of the war differed profoundly from the war’s reality.

What was that reality? A completely overmatched Iraqi army — conscripts press-ganged into uniform by a wretched dictatorship, with poor training, obsolete weaponry and no air support — was slaughtered in the thousands and probably the tens of thousands by the world’s best-equipped, best-trained and most highly motivated military.

That wasn’t the story we got.

Worse, the war experienced by the Iraqi population, the people for whom it was fought, was offstage.

The scale of Iraqi suffering remains hard to gauge, at least if you rely on the Pentagon, as American reporters do. The U.S. military says it doesn’t have a clue how many civilians died. I suppose that’s possible, although this was an exceptionally well-calibrated campaign, guided by razor-sharp intelligence, and having no idea of the scale of civilian death suggests ignorance so gaping as to be implausible. At the very least, if they wanted to know, they’d know.

Current estimates number the dead Iraqi noncombatants at 1,500. That seems low, in view of the lethality of U.S. weaponry. But even 1,500 isn’t trivial. That would represent a proportionate death rate nearly as high as Israel suffered last year from Palestinian suicide bombers, and those attacks had a searing effect on Israeli opinion.

American viewers wouldn’t be ready for the effect of civilian losses on Iraqi opinion because unlike the rest of the world we saw few Iraqi casualties, uniformed or not. Indeed, I’ve seen more images of Iraqis being cared for by American soldiers than harmed by them. You’d think the 101st Airborne was a division of Doctors Without Borders.

Even if they couldn’t embed reporters with Iraqi families, our media had access to pictures of what U.S. air strikes, artillery barrages and assault forces did to the population they were liberating — and to the opposing army of hapless draftees.

Those images were pushed out of prime time by the dramatic, if confusing, pictures brought to us by the embeddeds. So was sustained coverage of how the war was perceived by vital constituencies in the Muslim world, of the pressures from neighboring countries on what kind of post-Saddam regime they’ll tolerate, of how Iraqi civil society was disintegrating into chaos in the slipstream of the furious U.S. attack.

The paradox is that unparalleled media access to the war has left the U.S. public wholly unprepared for the post-war. Only now is it becoming apparent that to many Iraqis, including those who loathed Saddam, the war has been a calamity, a moment of national shame for which reckoning will be sought.

If that surprises us, we have our media to thank.

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