OTM takes a look at the crucial role of media in the evolution of this war. Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher and author of So Wrong for So Long, takes us back to the early days of combat.
And I'm Bob Garfield. Five years, half a trillion dollars, the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans and many times more Iraqis later, we are still feeling a kind of shock – and awe - [SOUND OF BOMBS DROPPING] - though perhaps not the kind intended by the Pentagon when it rained bombs on Baghdad on March 19th, 2003. Then we did feel that kind of awe, especially we in the media, like Wolf Blitzer. [SOUND OF BOMBS] [CLIP] WOLF BLITZER: I think it's fair to say in the 30 years that I've been covering these kinds of stories, General Shepherd, I've never seen anything like this, of this kind of magnitude, on live television, maybe not even on not-live television. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the crew here at OTM combed through our voluminous coverage of the coverage of the Iraq war and found that our archive runneth over with examples of media manipulation, credulity and courage. In the end, we managed to assemble a show of highlights to illuminate where we've been and perhaps where we ought to go. At least we ought to pay attention, and that's getting harder.
TV news watcher Andrew Tyndall says that in the last 15 weeks of 2007, the networks collectively spent just four minutes per week on the war. BOB GARFIELD: But let's start at the beginning – shock and awe. When the bombs fell, the media were, to put it crudely, stoked, and they showed it with escalating displays of patriotism. Cable news had the martial music and the flag pins and the news anchors who saw the Iraqi street through rose-colored glasses when American soldiers trudged in. [CLIP] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Basra has been the focus of a lot of attention and there were concerns that a humanitarian disaster could be provoked. But, John, look at this - JOHN: Yeah. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - the little children and the soldiers giving them candy. JOHN: Yeah. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor and Publisher and author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq. He says that in the war's early days, none of the mainstream news outlets could resist getting on board with the story of the war. GREG MITCHELL: And besides the graphics, the headlines and the flags that were jumping out at you from the screen, you also had a tremendous imbalance in terms of the voices that were allowed to speak on the air. You had no really antiwar voices or even people raising questions about the war. BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of boosterism, some of the uncritical embrace of the mission pretty quickly leaked from the red, white and blue cable news sets to the embedded reporters. We're going to have more on the embed program coming up next. But for the moment, just listen to this piece of tape from CNN's Walter Rodgers early in the war. [CLIP] WALTER RODGERS: So we've pulled back for that, and, as I say, when we were pulling back, we could see the area we had fought through two-and-a-half days ago. And when we pulled back, there were lots of – [VOICE FADES OUT] [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: We. Greg? GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, not only we, but we fought. I mean, that's the shocking thing about it. And I'm not sure that Walter picked up a gun there – I hope not – but certainly the impression was that they were, let's say, deeply embedded with the troops.
Fortunately, they did not meet so much resistance and that the war phase did not last all that long, but that, of course, as you know, led to a misleading impression of what would follow. BOB GARFIELD: If it's true that the media were slow to pick up on the realities of the situation in Iraq, it's equally true that at the same time they were under intense pressure from the administration and from the political right to find more good news and stop reporting so much bad news.
We were hearing a lot about turning points at various stages [LAUGHS] of the war. Tell me about the reporting on so-called turning points. GREG MITCHELL: Well, one of the first ones was the death of Saddam's sons, which was supposed to crush the spirit of the insurgency. And then we had the capture of Saddam himself, which was supposed to be a true turning point. When we took Fallujah pretty much by destroying it, and supposedly had wiped out the main vipers' nest in Iraq, that didn't quite happen.
Then we had the death of Zarqawi, whose face - dead, dead head was put on the front pages all over the country. That was supposed to crush the spirit of al Qaeda. That didn't happen. There has been this continual trumpeting of turning points, and here we are five years later and we have more troops in Iraq right now than we had three or four years ago. BOB GARFIELD: I'm speaking to you on Wednesday. In this morning's New York Times on one of the inside pages of the front section, I saw a photograph of an Iraqi who had died on the operating table as a result of wounds inflicted in a car bombing. It was a very grisly picture. And, you know, I did a kind of a double take because I haven't seen a lot of grisly images coming out of this war. And I wonder why that is? GREG MITCHELL: [LAUGHS] Well, the loss of images from this war has really been one of the more shocking things. We have seen almost no graphic photos of American dead or American injured. We've seen Iraqi dead. The photos exist, but they're not published.
Now, there are reasons for that. For one thing is, the Pentagon has said that it will not allow or discouraged the media from using images of dead or wounded Americans until family members have been notified. Well, this is a process that takes two or three days at least, and by that time they're no longer news photos so they lose their value as news.
The other factor which many people are aware of is the ban on showing the coffins or caskets of the soldiers coming back from Iraq. We do see images from funerals, so it's not completely antiseptic. But given the carnage, it is kind of staggering to reflect on the almost total lack of really graphic images of Americans suffering. BOB GARFIELD: I remember so vividly the first day that The New York Times listed the dead on an inside page, when it had ceased to be page-one news. It was quite early into the war.
And now coverage, on cable television, at least, is quite low. A year ago it was 24 percent dedicated to the Iraq war and now it is just, Greg, one percent. What has happened?
GREG MITCHELL: [LAUGHS] Well, for one thing, news organizations, which are under financial pressure, have withdrawn a large number of people from Iraq. Secondly, of course, we had the political campaign starting - much sexier. I think media feel that there's a fatigue factor among the public.
But people who think that's a dead issue are really fooling themselves. Just imagine if there was a debate tomorrow night between John McCain and either Clinton or Obama. Can you imagine what that debate would be like on the issue of Iraq? BOB GARFIELD: What you've described and what you describe in your book is a media that, as an institution, was insufficiently skeptical, was insufficiently critical when there was evidence of bad faith by the administration, and now is paying insufficient attention to a war that continues to rage. After five years, have we learned nothing? GREG MITCHELL: We have seen a tremendous number of very tough stories from very brave reporters in Iraq that I would never discount. And I think there has been kind of a sense among some in the media of a certain amount of shame, a certain amount of guilt about what they did before the war. And I think the reporters have tried to do a tougher job since then.
But I have to say that, in looking at the fifth anniversary coverage, one thing that's been missing in the hundreds of articles and all the hours of TV coverage is reflection on the media in the run-up to the war.
So I think that perhaps individual reporters tried much harder to get it right, but I'm not sure at the top whether there is this sense of this - really, one of the greatest black eyes in the history of journalism. BOB GARFIELD: Well Greg, thank you very much. GREG MITCHELL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor and Publisher Magazine and author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq.
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