August 8, 2003
If there never before was a war quite like the late (or, more accurately, ongoing) unpleasantness in Iraq, should we wonder that no previous war was ever covered quite as this one was? Embedded reporters! Real-time shoot-outs! Would not Richard Harding Davis, on seeing it, flip his pith helmet?
The truth is, my longtime profession, the media, will be assimilating and weighing for some time the implications of how, and how well, the Iraq war was reported, but here are some of my preliminary thoughts and observations.
A grim measure of the seriousness the war inspired in the media was the media death toll -- 14 photojournalists, translators and correspondents killed: an astonishing ratio of more than one for every nine dead American soldiers. Two prominent American journalists died -- Washington Post and Atlantic Monthly columnist Michael Kelly and NBC-TV correspondent David Bloom. By comparison, just four journalists were killed in the Gulf War and eight in Afghanistan. The wartime journalistic population in Iraq was high in the first place, with more than 100 outlets from around the world represented (including superstars like ABC's Ted Koppel). There is poignance, nonetheless, in the death of so many civilian professionals lured there by danger, the call of duty or a fetching combination of both. To die so that others may live freely is a thing we understand and rightly value; to die so that others may know is a reality less easily taken in.
Second, media-military hostilities dating from Vietnam days eased without vanishing altogether. The Pentagon, which had kept the media on a tight leash as recently as the Afghan campaign, this time "embedded" reporters in military units. The reporters lived with the troops, talked with the troops, often came to love and admire the troops. This was refreshing, frankly, in view of the media's proven distaste for the military as supposedly narrow, bellicose and homophobic, among other disabilities.
Faithful contemners of the military grumped about the loss of "objectivity" that came with the embedding process (as if some canon of journalism required doling out grief in equal measure to both sides). At that, much early reportage was gloomy and hangdog, as Iraqi ambushes claimed American lives. Very soon, American successes began to pile up; these generated the excitement and acclamation we had been led to not necessarily look for.
The hookup that took place in Iraq between reporters and blue-collar American soldiers may come to overshadow all other implications of wartime media coverage. What can be amiss with post-Vietnam journalists watching young Americans die for a country whose sins excite more media attention than its homely virtues?
Third, technology provided viewers an experience first suggested during Vietnam, which was known as the war TV "brought into your living room." Iraq was "real-time" war; it brought excitement and urgency to the home front. Viewers came to know, if only superficially, the "actors," from generals to buck privates. The enterprise thus was made personal in a way even Ernie Pyle -- the World War II dogface's advocate and friend -- could not have foreseen.
Fears of "Saving Private Ryan"-style carnage under American roofs never materialized, and actually could not have. Carnage is remarkably hard even for hand-held cameras to record and make sense of. Fresh bodies -- Iraqi bodies -- came into view, but only as aftermath. The cameras, all the same, imparted a sense of immediacy. "You Are There," as Walter Cronkite used to inform the viewers of his Sunday evening historical depiction show in the 1950s. If you were there, the matter became considerably less abstract and more important than otherwise would have been the case.
No coverage of an imperfect world is ever perfect. What strikes me concerning Iraq is how unpredictably good and absorbing the coverage proved. If we fought a new kind of war, so we seem to face a new kind of world, one in which accurate information about powerful, often grotesque realities becomes a priority more urgent than ever before. The media -- our media -- rose to the occasion.
William Murchison is the Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor. He is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as senior columnist at the Dallas Morning News, where he has been since 1973. His most recent book is There's More to Life Than Politics.