AFTER YEARS OF FIGHTING with the media, the Pentagon can finally, and proudly, claim it has won the public relations war in Iraq. At least it has so far as its policy on how the media covers America's wars is concerned--for now.
Critics called it "the ultimate reality show," but what we witnessed was truly revolutionary coverage of armed conflict unprecedented in the annals of the military-media relationship. As Steve Bell, Ball State University telecommunications professor and veteran international news correspondent for ABC News, which included covering Vietnam, put it in April, 2003, "What we are living and watching is extraordinary. We have never fought wars like this."
Indeed, this news coverage was more closely akin to the way World War II was reported, although it was dramatically more radical a concept. Military censors were very much alive and well during World War II, and journalists' reports were still subjected to field press censorship. There was no censorship in Iraq. World War II correspondents were assigned to press camps, while the embedded journalists were assigned to individual units in Iraq. The manner of reporting on the individual soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman in the Iraq war was similar to that of Ernie Pyle, who became famous with his endearing and perceptive reports on the average American serviceman.
As Pyle wrote in one of his columns, "I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without." We saw these modern-day "underdogs" up-close-and-personal, beamed from the desert sands of Iraq, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some correspondents, like the late David Bloom, actually got close to Pyle's level of insight in his stories on soldiers and Marines. However, unlike World War II, we saw it all "live."
In another sense, there are similarities in the coverage of this conflict and how the Vietnam War was covered, except that reporters didn't just "hop a ride" to the war zone, cover the story, and head back to Saigon for a "cold one" at the end of the day. Film reports from Vietnam had to be flown out of the country before they could be shown a day or two later. Nonetheless, television brought the war into America's living room for the first time. Similarly, in the early days of the Iraqi conflict, we were glued to our TV screens, only now we were watching endless hours of desert rolling passively by, waiting for that instant of "breaking news." As columnist John Fund put it in his article, "Attack in the Box: The Dangers of a Televised War," in early April, "An awful lot of people have become addicted to this kind of 'Live from Baghdad' reporting."
Much as the successful enforcement of family rules and policies can be judged by the intensity of complaints from the children upon whom they are inflicted, media criticism would provide further evidence that the Pentagon's policies succeeded. This criticism has covered the gambit from the ridiculous to the sublime. Evidence of the ridiculous is Harper 's magazine publisher John MacArthur. In an interview quoted in a May I Reuters article, he said of arguably one of the most-lasting images of U.S. victory in the war--a U.S. soldier draping an American flag over the head of a statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad--"It was absolutely a photoop created for [Pres. George W.] Bush's re-election campaign commercials."
The sublime is evidenced in media commentary criticizing the performance of other journalists. Seemingly, it is fashionable now for journalists to dump on each other since, apparently, the Pentagon's policies have offered little to complain about. For example, as reported by Mary E. O'Leary, New Haven (Conn.) Topics editor, Michael Hirsh, a senior editor at Newsweek, told a Yale University audience that he was "fairly appalled" by television's coverage of the Iraqi war. …