The last decade saw wars for which there were no rule books already written. Brooke talks to David Halberstam about whether the new style of warfare requires a new style of coverage.
A Very Modern Conflict
October 6, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A student seeking the truth about how America's recent wars were waged and reported on will turn eventually to the books of David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be. His latest book, War in a Time of Peace, deals with America's military campaigns in the '90s. He says television's foreign coverage in the last decade has been a casualty of the corporate takeover of the networks.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: It's profound, and what happens when that takes place -- the people who do your polling, and no one polls more than the networks, not even Bill Clinton, [LAUGHTER] tell you that the American people do not care about foreign policy, where in the past an editor, an executive editor or a news executive at television was like a print editor, and he balanced or she balanced in the traditional way the idea of what people wanted to know with what they needed to know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In The Powers That Be, you wrote about the conduct of the media during the Vietnam War. This was before the change of ownership, when characters like David Sarnoff [sp?] and Bill Paley were still there and willing to run their news operations sometimes even as loss leaders.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Yes, and you remember during the Vietnam War the nation was obsessed by the War. It was in my friend Michael Arlen's [sp?] phrase "the living room war," so in fact covering it -- a place where the whole country was fascinated -did not hurt ratings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that's when a lot of bad blood began to flow between news operations and the Pentagon!
DAVID HALBERSTAM:Inevitably! I mean inevitably because we were covering and reporting on an unwinnable war -the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. People at the Pentagon will prefer by and large a minimalist and sort of a somnambulent [LAUGHS] press corps -- you know one that can be fed every day the way you feed the fish at the zoo!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Which brings us to the military actions of the '90s! The period covered in your book --Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti -- the TV coverage with some clear exceptions was considerably less enlightening than that of Vietnam. Was TV news shut out or did it choose for the most part to stay out?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: The television reporting by and large reflected the overall American attitude that these things didn't matter. I think that the president, that Clinton was not particularly interested in upgrading reports of the Balkans because he was not acting on it, and some of the reporters who went there felt that the networks had responded to that - that Washington was trying to cool it on the agenda and that a lot of the network newsrooms take their signals from what the White House does and does not say is important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was television news less inclined to report news that was unfavorable to the U.S. government?
DAVID HALBERSTAM:No, I don't think it's that. I think it's something different. I think it's television news responding to what it thinks people want -- America wasn't overseas fighting --and therefore you want -- the job was to drive the ratings up because you were going to try and drive the stock up!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well that brings us to today. How well prepared do you think the media is in terms of manpower, resources, historical memory and even motivation to cover this coming uncertain phase in military and foreign affairs?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: The question is really what kind of citizens are people like Michael Eisner and Michael Jordan at CBS and the heirs of Jack Welch going to be? Are they going to be - are there going to be these same harsh norms of profit in order to drive the stock up? This, this is a very important question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay! Well David Halberstam, thank you very much.
DAVID HALBERSTAM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Halbestam is author of many books including War in a Time of Peace.
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