Some Thoughts on the National Media Coverage of the War on Terrorism

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The U.S. media have been misguided in their approach to covering this nation's conflicts since the Vietnam War. The death of someone under normal circumstances attracts family members from all over the country as well as the deceased's closest friends and acquaintances. A funeral is arranged. An obituary is prepared. The deceased is buried in a local cemetery. The mourners console each other over a meal, and life goes on. The event is local, and so should media coverage be. It is not necessary for the national evening news to announce on a regular basis that one, two or five more servicemen and women have died that day or to "honor" the fallen once a week by floating head-and-shoulders photos of a few individuals before a national audience, the vast majority of whom have no connection to the deceased.

From a national perspective, the media focus on death is misguided. The measure of victory or defeat is not determined by body counts, either friendly or enemy; Vietnam should have taught us that. But while the Pentagon has apparently learned that stacking up enemy corpses like cordwood is not an effective informational tool, the national media have not. Success or failure at the national level should be measured on the achievement of specific national security goals. Trying to do so according to the number of U.S. servicemen and women who have died in a conflict automatically favors failure.

The death of one soldier is too many, and the more who die-recall the media frenzy as the casualty numbers in Iraq broke 1,000, then 2,000, then 3,000-the more likely public support will wane.

As Clausewitz so rightly pointed out, once the public will starts to evaporate, the war is essentially lost.

Curiously, the national media report terrorist activity in terms of the number of victims killed by the terrorist. The identity of the terrorist is usually ignored, and the subliminal message is that the terrorist's suicide has somehow accomplished something. When the national media report on American actions in Iraq, the bottom line is always the number of Americans killed or wounded. That the mission was accomplished or that some terrorists were killed or captured is secondary. This phenomenon may have a lot to do with the fact that Islamic terrorists do not wear uniforms and are very adept at blending into the population; the national media seem to accept the asymmetrical circumstances as a given.

I do not think that the Bush administration has done a very good job at setting or publicizing national goals in the current conflict. The United States and its Coalition partners appear to have gone into Iraq on one set of assumptions, and the "policy" has appeared to shift dramatically over time. I have not seen much substantive coverage surrounding the shifts in policy, which is unfortunate. Be that as it may, however, the media have unwittingly added to the confusion by focusing on the number of deaths rather than the larger issue, that is, the global war on terrorism-which is not going to go away anytime soon, regardless of the outcome in Iraq.

Instead, the U.S. media should be looking critically at the policies of our government. If the policies are not clear, members of the media should hound the administration until clarity is achieved, either by the media or the administration. If policies change, the national media should be reporting changes. The fact that changes occur is news. Assumptions have to change, and policies will have to be amended. …