The Media's Iraq War. (Press & Media)

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Media's Iraq War. (Press & Media)

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During seven weeks spent with half a dozen [U.S. Army] units," David Zucchino, a report for The Los Angeles Times (May 3, 2003), "I slept in fighting holes and armored vehicle, on a rooftop, a garage floor and in lumbering troop trucks. ... I ate with the troops. ... I complained with them about the choking dust, the lack of water, our foul-smelling bodies, and our scaly, rotting feet."

Like the 600 other journalists "embedded" in U.S. military units during the 43-day war in Iraq, Zucchino was dependent on his hosts for sustenance, transportation, protection--and access. This last enabled him to write vividly detailed stories about the battle for Baghdad and the performance of American soldiers in combat. But the officially sanctioned access also limited him. "I could not interview survivors of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers.... I had no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing."

Despite its drawbacks, the extensive embedding experiment (which had been tried on a limited basis during the 2001-02 war in Afghanistan) was deemed a success by both the military and the media.

Major newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, also dispatched many reporters and photographers who were not lodged with U.S. troops. Those colleagues, says Zucchino, "covered what we could not--the Iraq government, civilian casualties, humanitarian crises, military strategy, political fallout, and everything else beyond our cloistered existence." "The war has been reported superbly by newspapers," says Stephen Hess, who scrutinizes the media from his scholarly perch at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The stories have been rich in variety, coming at this from so many different angles."

But only a minority of Americans (30 percent, in one poll) relied on newspapers for news about the war. Advanced technology and access to the battlefield allowed both cable and broadcast TV to relay powerful images of firefights and bombs exploding over Baghdad.

Yet graphic footage of the death and suffering seldom made it on the air, at least in the United States. A study of more than 40 hours of coverage on the broadcast and cable networks early in the war "found that about half the reports from embedded journalists showed combat action, but not a single story depicted people hit by weapons," writes Jacqueline E.

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