For the first time since US forces invaded Iraq a month ago today, the war is no longer the top-drawer item on the cable news networks or their websites. And what has displaced it? Juicy breaking news about Laci Peterson, the pregnant California woman who disappeared around Christmas. Now begins the lemming-run to get the scoop on the murdered mom; Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC is probably in a catfight with an airline ticketing attendant as we speak.
There's a perfectly reasonable question in all this that no one is asking. Who cares who killed Laci Peterson?
I'm glad you asked, and here's the answer.
Naked pictures of Laci Peterson!
There. Once this post has had time to cycle through Google's search engine, I guarantee you that this one line will draw more page-viewers than Google searches pertaining to all my war items from the past few days combined. No wonder so many journalists have contempt for the public, and no wonder so much of the public has contempt for journalists.
The segue from war to Laci may be altogether predictable--what other sort of story, besides another stateside terrorist attack, could have displaced Iraq in the networks' firmament of Really Big News?--but it's telling all the same. During the media ramp-up to the Iraq invasion, remember, the news channel drumbeat was really only interrupted by another story once; and that was the return of Elizabeth Smart.
You can say a lot of things about the behavior of the news networks, but you can't say it isn't consistent. From OJ to Susan Smith to Monica to Chandra to the war and Laci Peterson, "the news" is just a struggling species of reality TV now. The stories with legs are the ones that offer up ongoing and easily digested morality plays, preferably bloody ones with colorful villains. Best of all, the news networks are not hampered by the stricture that still afflicts broadcast-TV reality programming: Thou shalt not kill the contestants. The American cable networks are the Brothers Grimm of our age.
From the Oregonian:
The embedded in Iraq: stenography for the Pentagon
P undits and media poo-bahs are busy congratulating themselves for doing a wonderful job covering the Iraq war. After some initial suspicion, the Pentagon and media leaders now agree embedding reporters with soldiers was a significant step for press freedom, and the gushing 24/7 media coverage means Americans are better informed.
I beg to disagree. I'm a foreign correspondent with more than 20 years experience reporting from dozens of countries, including Iraq.
In my opinion, most of the mainstream media coverage of Iraq consists of stenography for the Pentagon -- not the balanced and accurate reporting necessary in a democracy. And the information coming out of the White House, reported without much skepticism by the press corps, won't prepare Americans for postwar realities.
We've benefited from some excellent and courageous reporting, particularly from reporters in the field and in Baghdad. In some sense, we lived with them through the sandstorms and firefights, and were reminded of the hell that is war.
But many of the embedded reporters also came to consider the troops their friends and protectors. They relied on them, in some cases, as their only information source. Too many reporters came to see themselves as latter-day Larrys of Arabia, wearing military-issue camouflage and combat boots.
While this has been the most extensively covered war in history, we ended up with a less-accurate picture of reality. For one thing, the U.S. media relied way too much on the veracity of official sources. The uprising that wasn't Remember, for example, the "Basra uprising" in which U.S. and British military officers claimed the Shiites of southern Iraq had risen up against Saddam Hussein? The March 26 USA Today wrote "significant numbers of Iraqi civilians took to the streets." The article quotes a British officer saying his troops were ready to capitalize on the revolt. Similar stories of a Basra uprising appeared throughout the U.S. media.
There was only one problem. There was no uprising. Reporters from al-Jazeera TV, who were inside Basra, had footage of a calm city still under government control at the time. Similar optimistic reports that the Basra garrison had defected to the British also proved false.
Embedded journalists occasionally did file unique reports. After the March 31 incident near Najaf when U.S. troops killed at least seven women and children in a civilian van, an embedded journalist from The Washington Post reported from the scene that some soldiers said they didn't fire warning shots -- as claimed by the Pentagon. But the story died without any further follow-up by other media.
From countless conversations with journalists over the years, I know most self-censor their stories. If former military officers or top-ranking Democrats offer criticisms of the war, reporters in the field are emboldened to offer a more-skeptical view of the Pentagon. But when the war appears to be going well, such skepticism -- no matter how justified -- ceases. Doing otherwise risks accusations of America bashing and lack of patriotism.
Former NBC correspondent Peter Arnett learned that lesson the hard way. On March 30 he told Iraqi TV, "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces."
Other reporters were making similar remarks on TV and radio talk shows in the United States. NBC said it fired Arnett for expressing his personal opinions on Iraqi TV because reporters are supposed to present the facts.
Ironically, on the same day Arnett was fired, Fox News reporter Greg Kelly, told The New York Times, "We absolutely want our unit to be successful," referring to the Second Brigade with whom he was embedded. "Are we emotionally invested? We are. We know these people."
Kelly was certainly expressing an opinion about the war, not just reporting the facts. Yet I haven't heard a single call for his dismissal.
Reporters know there are no consequences for expressing pro-war opinions or even misreporting information about the Iraqi government. But even accurate information critical of the Bush administration can be dangerous to your health.
The White House has long attacked Arabic language TV network al-Jazeera for anti-U.S. reporting. On April 8, a U.S. missile hit the al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one correspondent and seriously wounding a camera person. Al-Jazeera, whose office was destroyed by a U.S. missile in Kabul during the Afghanistan war, gave the U.S. military its precise Baghdad coordinates to avoid a similar incident.
Four hours later, a U.S. tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, where hundreds of foreign reporters are staying. The Pentagon initially claimed U.S. troops came under sniper fire from the lobby. But the Pentagon was unable to explain why a tank then fired a round into the 15th floor, killing two journalists and wounding several others.
Reporters in the hotel saw absolutely no gunfire coming from the hotel, which is confirmed by a French TV videotape running for four minutes before the U.S. attack. Dissuading the media? Certainly in the chaos of war, soldiers make mistakes. But given the strong Pentagon opposition to reporters staying in Baghdad without official U.S. sanction, journalists in the field remain suspicious. Amnesty International asks, "Was the point to dissuade the media from covering the Battle of Baghdad?"
In the coming days, we're likely to see more pictures of angry looters, uncomfortable Marines escorting Iraqi police on their rounds and U.S.-orchestrated meetings aimed at setting up a fledgling government.
But will the media also show the war's devastation to civilians? Will it accurately report on how the United States can bring stability to Iraq without occupying it for years to come?
Stay tuned. Freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich reported from Iraq last year for the San Francisco Chronicle, Common Ground Radio and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio. He's also reported from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Grenada and is co-author, along with Norman Solomon, of "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You," Context Books, 2003.
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