War-Front News Rivets and Repels ; Nonstop Coverage Offers Viewers Unique Access to Battle Zone, but May Give a Distorted Perspective

Article excerpt

The night the 7th Cavalry began rolling across the desert toward Baghdad - with CNN's cameras along for the ride - Matthew Nesbitt watched TV until 4 o'clock in the morning.

A sports agent from Columbia, Md., with an 8-month-old baby at home, he knew he needed to get to sleep. But he couldn't turn it off. "You couldn't believe what you were watching - the fact that you were seeing what the marines were seeing," he recalls in amazement. "Anything could have happened. It was crazy to have that perspective."

By contrast, the first time Tracy Linderholm saw her favorite NBC News reporter on a Humvee in Iraq, her primary reaction was "fear and worry." Since then, she's been trying to avoid most war reporting, limiting her news intake to the Today Show in the morning, and a half hour of news at night. "I don't think it's serving a purpose other than creating additional anxiety," the University of Florida professor says of the saturation coverage. "I don't need to see battles as they happen."

As the war unfolds in real time on TV sets across the nation, Americans have been alternately riveted and repelled. To some viewers, the mixture of live reports from embedded journalists, with running commentary from retired generals, is uncomfortably voyeuristic and one-sided. To others, it's a fascinating window into the workings of war.

Live coverage and loss of perspective

Most media critics say the 24/7 coverage, while uneven, has generally succeeded in creating a sense of immediacy - and intimacy - that brings the war closer to average citizens and provides them with valuable knowledge. But they caution that without a sense of context, the stream of information can be confusing and even numbing. At times, it has made it harder for people to put events in perspective - with relatively minor incidents sometimes being magnified on the small screen, while more important maneuvers out of the cameras' range remain unreported.

"Seeing it live makes us think that everything we're seeing is vastly important - when it might just be a pinprick on the map," says David Perlmutter, a Louisiana State University communications professor, who specializes in images of warfare. "While the American public is getting a good view of what it's like to fight a battle, I don't know if they're getting a good view of what it's like to fight a war."

This magnifying effect has made public opinion about the war far more volatile. Already, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think the war is going "very well" plummeted from 71 percent on Saturday to 38 percent on Monday - after the first "shock and awe" images of bombing and tanks rolling across the desert were replaced by reports of US casualties and pictures of captured US soldiers. …