The war, according to CNN

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Media Practice | 24/03/2003
Clearly coverage of the war can be thrilling as long as it does not involve, quote unquote, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.



Ammu Joseph in New York

CNN, which claims to be "the most trusted name in news,"  provided some interesting glimpses into the mind of mainstream American media during the Newsnight programme hosted by Aaron Brown late on Saturday night (
22 March 2003).  When I tuned in, close to midnight, Brown was just trying to "clear up a little mess" he had apparently created earlier by suggesting equivalence between the pro- and anti-war demonstrations held across the country earlier in the day.  In response to angry calls and e-mails from the organisers of the pro-peace demonstrations, he clarified that the marches to protest the attacks on Iraq had been substantially larger than those in support of the government and its use of military might to bring about "regime change" in Iraq

However, CNN`s  continuing effort to play down the magnitude and meaning of the protests was all too evident on both television news programmes and its website.  The news headlines on Saturday night chose to highlight the demonstration  in Washington, D.C., which happened to be much smaller than the one in New York this weekend, possibly because an estimated 100,000 Washingtonians had taken to the streets just the previous Saturday (15 March) to protest the war.   The impressive turnout in New York (between 120,000 and 250,00 according to official and unofficial estimates respectively) was glossed over by focusing exclusively on the 90 demonstrators reportedly arrested at the tail end of an otherwise huge, long and  peaceful march -- thanks to  a scuffle between a small group of young people and the police -- without any mention or images of the enormous crowd of people who had gathered to register their  protest against the war in a non-violent manner.  Similarly, Saturday’s protest in
Los Angeles was reported only in terms of the people arrested for refusing to leave a street corner. 

Later in the Newsnight programme, Brown anchored a discussion with three journalists based in
Chicago, St. Louis and San Diego.   After talking in general about public attitudes towards the war in different parts of the country, and the opportunities and challenges of covering the war, the discussion turned to the new phenomenon of "embedded journalism" that has come into being in the current conflict. 

James Warren of the Chicago Tribune highlighted the fact that it was "a double-edged sword."  On the one hand, he pointed out, the inevitable close relationships between embedded correspondents and  the troops with whom they have already spent two months could affect their ability to maintain the distance necessary for  professional journalism.  On the other, events such as the grenade attack by an American soldier on fellow members of the 101st Airborne division based in Camp Pennsylvania in northern Kuwait, which is clearly a "PR nightmare" for the armed forces, may never have been allowed to come to public attention were it not for the presence on the spot of Jim Lacey of Time magazine. 

However, Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune, had a different view.  According to him, "The American people are the winners with embedded journalism."  He suggested that the correspondents speaking to camera were clearly not censored and that this was because the military trusted them.   He obviously did not see the connection between such trust and self-censorship or, indeed, the possibility of a kind of "Stockholm syndrome" setting in as journalists and soldiers live and work in constant company with each other over long periods and in situations of stress and danger.  

The journalist from
St. Louis, who had initially admitted that embedded journalism could be problematic in the longer term, nevertheless seemed to think that it was justified because reports from the field are popular.  "Readers are just eating it up," she said.  "They can`t have enough of it.  They want to know more."  According to her, their  embedded correspondent has become a local hero.

Then came a conversation with Jim Lacey in
Kuwait about the grenade attack.  I listened in  amazement as Lacey said, "The suspect has an Arabic-sounding name."  Even Brown seemed a bit astonished.  Lacey clarified later that the problem seemed to stem from the individual`s opposition to "the chain of command."  It turns out, from newspaper reports on Sunday (23 March), that the soldier concerned is an American citizen who had converted to Islam, and that he had been reprimanded for insubordination in the past.  But Lacey`s reference to "other Muslim soldiers who are doing excellent work" could not make up for the irresponsibility of implying a possible ethnic or religious angle to the unfortunate incident  - even if that was not his intention - before there was any evidence to support the thesis, especially in view of heightened anti-Muslim feelings in the U.S. in the post-9/11 era. 

And, finally, as Brown rounded up the programme with previews of the front pages of various newspapers the following day, came another interesting perspective.  He went through a number of American papers continuing to report the "wave of steel" progressing across the desert with headlines such as "On to Baghdad" and "Closing in on Iraqis" and photographs of American soldiers (including one showing a group of them shouting belligerently as they brandished their weapons) without much comment.  Then he came to one which made him pause and remark on the power of pictures to inflame passions.  He finally overcame his apparent reluctance to show the offending image to his television audience.  It turned out to be a photograph in the British paper, The Observer, of an Iraqi child, obviously wounded in the recent bombing and almost completely covered in bandages.  

Clearly coverage of the war can be thrilling as long as it does not involve "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." 


Ammu Joseph is a freelance writer and author of Women in Journalism—Making News .Contact:

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