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Old 03-25-2003, 08:04 AM
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Default Revolution in battlefield reporting

Revolution in battlefield reporting
But 'mosaic' of information still not a coherent view of the war
Tim Goodman
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
?2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

Six days into what is nearly nonstop war coverage, CNN's Judy Woodruff took a second to pause and explain that the channel is trying its best to give viewers the big picture.

Good luck.

What Gen. Tommy Franks has called the mosaic of war is one of the most illusive puzzles to piece together, as more than six networks are broadcasting reports from embedded reporters spread throughout Iraq.

Over the course of a day -- CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all-war, all-the- time -- even those people watching nonstop may find it difficult to get an accurate representation of how the war is going.

For instance, when graphics go up on cable news channels that suggest Umm Qasr is under coalition control, what does that mean, given the fact that firefights brought to the American public via videophone suggest that the area remains unstable and dangerous?

One of the most difficult jobs news organizations now face is taking control of the new technology that is turning Iraq into the next "living room war" and presenting it in a fashion where viewers, whether they tune in for updates or watch constantly -- can make some sense of how well or not it's going for American troops.

There's no question that what's unfolding on television is both fascinating and disconcerting. Video and satellite phones are bringing viewers surprising access to live battlefield updates.

While a philosophical war rages in journalistic circles over whether embedded reporters are being spun by the Pentagon or whether their reports are being censored, anyone flipping around the dial and encountering live firefights should be able to draw a reasonable conclusion that they are, in fact, providing more information than the Pentagon thought might get out.

Those battlefield reports -- live -- counter the notion that the military would be screening content sent back to American news organizations.

It's just not physically possible. While some content control can be expected in static situations -- such as when an American soldier allegedly lobbed grenades into a military tent, for example -- there have been numerous live reports where war is breaking out all around. Nobody is going to be able to stop that kind of reporting and, as things intensify closer to Baghdad, limits of any kind of control will be severely tested.

Viewers have a staggering amount of options, as well. More American news organizations than expected are now using Arabic news feeds.

With most Western news branches limited to a series of four mounted cameras in a secluded corner of Baghdad, it's the Arabic channels, either roaming the country or setting up shop in less prominent cities, that are often sending back the most dramatic footage.

This all but forces networks to use that video -- we've probably never seen as many Arabic logos as we have in the last six days.

Savvy viewers also can tap into PBS broadcasts of BBC video to get a different perspective on how the war is being portrayed worldwide. (BBC America, on digital cable, is also increasing its BBC news broadcasts).

The variety of options was highlighted Sunday when five American prisoners of war were taken by the Iraqi military. Al-Jazeera (to which the Chronicle subscribes) showed disturbing video of the group, but American broadcasters held back footage and only later in the evening began showing snippets.

That development was directly related to POW Joseph Hudson's mother's having seen the video while watching a Filipino channel (that gave networks the next-of-kin notification they needed to show bits of the Iraqi TV broadcast).

On Monday, the father of Shoshana Johnson, one of the initial POWs, said he found out about his daughter's capture on Spanish-language television, even before the military told him of his daughter's fate.

Both Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television showed two American helicopter pilots taken prisoner on Monday, while the American networks waited for next- of-kin notification -- policy for most -- before showing snippets.

Factoring in other ethnic broadcasting outlets (Al-Jazeera reporters also are embedded with U.S. troops, by the way), it seems increasingly unlikely that the Pentagon can keep a lid on developing situations. The war is simply moving too swiftly and there are too many news organizations with access.

But what comes from that access is confusion. No matter how many paid military advisers sit in studios in New York and Atlanta, Central Command briefings -- tightly controlled -- and the occasional Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld press conference are the only overview explanations viewers get. News organizations are scrambling to piece together what they're getting from relentlessly incoming video, but those videos sometimes dramatically contradict anything Franks or Rumsfeld is feeding the press.

So, what to believe, what to make of it all? Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions, mostly. That in itself is an adventure. The cable news channels have seen their ratings numbers spike dramatically and the networks have all seen increases as well, indicating that at least some Americans are falling once again into news-junkie mode, even more so than in the last Gulf War. And no wonder -- a trip around the dial reveals the dramatically changed landscape of televised war.

For instance, late Saturday night the frenetic news-wheel approach to Iraq - - updating every 20 or so minutes -- took a pause when sniper fire turned into a confrontation with more than 100 Republican Guard fighters in Umm Qasr. The slow, matter-of-fact circumstances, narrated by a British pool reporter, showed a vastly different side to the picture of American tanks speeding unimpeded through the desert -- high-profile video less than 48 hours earlier.

All of a sudden, live in the waning hours of the day, anyone could jump from Jay Leno to uninterrupted, oddly riveting coverage of real bullets passing back and forth in what looked like a hot, nearly desolate city.

For a couple of hours, videophone technology brought as-it-happens war developments into our homes. Tanks aligned themselves slowly to find better vantage points. Someone could be heard calling in an air strike for cover. Military advisers back in the studios tried to analyze tactics. It was a whole new brand of reality television.

On Sunday night, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta showed graphic footage of an abdominal surgery on a wounded Iraqi soldier. Each day -- each hour -- continued a revolution in how war was being covered. And yet, continuous and random reports from various regions made big picture comprehension more elusive.

Did that firefight turn Umm Qasr for the coalition forces? Did Fox News' interviews aboard an aircraft carrier hint that more bombing was coming? Did MSNBC reports in the north indicate the Kurds knew the Turks were moving in when the U.S. denied it was happening?

Who knows? Six days in and that mosaic remains an unfinished picture.

E-mail Tim Goodman at
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