• U.S.

Real Battles In Real Time

7 minute read
James Poniewozik

It was a staggering demonstration of new technology, the fruit of heavy investment, months of behind-the-scenes work and the deployment of personnel seemingly everywhere at once. And the military was doing some interesting stuff too. But in television’s coverage of the first days of the war, what transfixed American viewers was not simply what we were seeing but that we were seeing it at all. Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles powering through berms on the Iraqi border, oil fields burning, missiles ripping into Baghdad and soldiers and reporters donning gas masks and scrambling for bunkers–all live and in color, or at least in night-vision green.

We have already seen more of Gulf War II than we did of all of Gulf War I. The best known TV scoop of the 1991 war was essentially radio: CNN’s Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman describing the air attack on an audio line while the network broadcast their photographs over a map of Iraq. In sheer visual terms, last week’s telecasts–with digital-age 3D animations, live interviews from the middle of an invasion and space-agey dispatches by videophone–were to their predecessor as Grand Theft Auto is to Pong.

For the networks, as for the military, this is a costly war–not just in equipment but potentially in hundreds of millions of dollars of forgone advertising. When it came to choosing between news and dollars, the networks went with their strength. NBC stuck with a Friends rerun on Thursday even after the ground war had begun, while CBS aired NCAA basketball. ABC and Fox, whose regular Thursday programming usually gets trounced, went with the war. Friends won. On cable, CNN–whose Gulf War I glory days are an increasingly misty memory–hoped its breaking-news reputation would help it unseat No. 1 Fox News. That didn’t happen.

There were early stumbles. After President Bush’s Monday ultimatum, MSNBC put up a deadline-countdown clock, as though it were the E! Oscars preshow. And when the first missiles hit, ABC’s Peter Jennings was nowhere to be found, hustling onto the set shortly before Bush addressed the nation. As if to redeem itself, the network stayed with the story longer than its rivals. NBC got riveting reports from Baghdad from Arnett, on loan from MSNBC’s National Geographic Explorer–he welcomed incoming fire like a bracing morning shower–but anchorman Tom Brokaw should save his sentimental streak for his WW II books.

All the networks sent stars into the gulf. That’s great when the star is Ted Koppel, racing toward Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry and doing effortlessly intelligent long reports. It’s not so terrific when the star is CBS’s Julie Chen, who can’t control an interview on the hermetically sealed set of Big Brother, much less in a war zone.

On cable, Fox News’s patriotism found, if it were possible, an even higher gear. The network’s onscreen graphics referred to “our troops,” and contributor Oliver North, reporting with a 1st Marine Unit, said, “Every Marine out here watches Fox News … because it portrays them the way they are: American.” Fox’s coverage was not the most neutral, but perhaps because of its pro-G.I. attitude, soldiers seemed to open up most to its correspondents. CNN’s depth of international reporters showed, and it got some remarkable white-knuckle reporting in Baghdad from Nic Robertson, barking out a blow-by-blow even as an armed Iraqi remonstrated with him for giving the locations of explosions. (Robertson and his crew were kicked out of Iraq late in the week.) CNN’s tag team of anchors sifted smoothly through the rush of developments, but star Aaron Brown continued to sing his grating song of himself, rattling on about his thought processes and feelings.

But the real star was the unprecedented live footage that emerged from the military’s “embedding” program: allowing journalists to ride (and sail) along with units, with restrictions on what they could report. These strange embedfellows all have something to gain. Journalists want access to the kind of operations they were barred from during Gulf War I and in Afghanistan. The Pentagon wants a third party to record heroic exploits, enemy dastardliness and hoped-for discoveries of weapons of mass destruction. Major Garrett, reporting from the Pentagon for Fox News, put it bluntly: “These embedded reporters are not only scouts for the media but scouts for the Pentagon.”

The wealth of images is far preferable to the near blackout of Gulf War I. But seeing doesn’t automatically equal knowing. Excitement, dust and dark often limited reporters’ perspectives. “We seem to see a line of vehicles off to the left there,” said CBS’s John Roberts by videophone, on the move with the 1st Marine Division in southern Iraq. “Oh, sorry. It’s a line of camels.” Many important early operations, like special-forces missions, went on without media witnesses. And although watching Fox News’s Rick Leventhal report while a Marine unit fired heavy artillery gave us a personal, frightening glimpse of the immediacy of war, all it objectively told us was that somebody somewhere was shooting at someone or something. All that live video sent the stirring message that the planes were unleashing hell, Saddam’s palaces were burning, and the caissons were rolling along. But in the first days of the war, it didn’t show us what was behind those telegenic, orange cotton-candy fireballs: dead Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

Nor did it answer the big question: Was the war going well? Military leaders saw little reason to supplement the TV images with concrete information. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted with satisfaction that the embeds were showing only “slices” of the action. When the Pentagon announced the first Central Command press conference more than three days into the war, in its snazzy Qatar briefing center (complete with espresso bar), one U.S. military official was disappointed that the brass would field questions at all. “Things are going just the way we wanted them to,” the official said. “The embeds are showing coalition troops moving forward and Iraqis surrendering. We’re giving away no useful information for the enemy. Why should we change?”

Hence the networks’ heavy reliance on speculation from ex-generals, reverse-embedded in TV studios. A four-star constellation of generals, from Norman Schwarzkopf to Wesley Clark, offered copious speculation on next moves and helped civilian hosts with confusing matters of jargon and hardware. The military men’s informed analysis often makes their former colleagues more nervous than reporters’ stories do. General Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a call with a group of them during the week, tried to rein them in a bit. “Look,” he entreated, “you’ve all been here before and know what it’s like to have outside people second-guessing.”

The embed program seems to have left TV and the Pentagon reasonably happy. The networks have access–if not to the big picture of the war, at least to crowd-pleasing pictures. And so far the Pentagon couldn’t have hoped for more military-friendly images if it had shot them on the Paramount lot. That could change if the war does, but with the public accustomed to a live-and-in-color living-room war, it may be politically difficult to pull the plug even if the conflict gets ugly. Said Brokaw as hostilities commenced: “This will probably be the most televised event in the history of mankind.” That would be both an achievement and a shame: the greatest visual record of the species would be of people blowing up one another. Suddenly, 40 million people watching Joe Millionaire doesn’t seem quite so depressing. –With reporting by John F. Dickerson/Washington and Sally B. Donnelly/Doha

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com