Doubt and Derision over Baghdad
Rollins, Karina, The American Enterprise
Our nation is still catching its breath after the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, commercial-free, embedded, reported, re-reported, questioned, analyzed, parroted media frenzy that was the coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Never in the world's history has the combination of technology and reporters at the front lines brought war so vividly into our living rooms. In retrospect, how was the American public served by the correspondents, anchor-men, columnists, pundits, and "embeds" who had the job of describing the fight in Iraq?
Let's start with TV. The Media Research Center (MRC), whose staff studies such matters for a living, concludes that, on the whole, "reports from embedded journalists were refreshingly factual and were mostly devoid of commentary." Yet back in the studios, "television's war coverage was plagued by the same problems detected during previous conflicts: too little skepticism of enemy propaganda, too much mindless negativism about America's military prospects, and a reluctance on the part of most networks to challenge the premises of the anti-war movement."
MRC analysts took in virtually every second of the TV war coverage and issued a report card on the major channels. ABC scored the worst by far, with a grade of D-. "ABC's reporters presented the most adversarial and negative coverage of the American war effort." Their man in Baghdad, Richard Engel, "did the most to play up Iraqi claims of civilian suffering at the hands of Americans." Ted Koppel was dreadful--"the rare embedded journalist who spent his time lecturing and pontificating instead of recounting the historic events that surrounded him, as the MRC summarizes. On the very first day of the war, as his unit pushed into enemy territory and battle swirled around him, Koppel chose not to describe what he was witnessing but to opine to Peter Jennings: We ought to take note of the significance of what is happening here because this is an invasion that in this particular case, of course, was not prompted by an invasion of the United States. I know that members of the administration have been creating a tenuous linkage between al-Qaeda and the Iraqis so that there is that linkage between 9/11 and what's happening here now ..." and on and on.
Jennings, ABC's anchor, got a flat F. "More than any other anchor," reports the MRC, he "zeroed in on purported weaknesses and failings in the U.S. effort to win support among liberated Iraqis." On the March 22 edition of "World News Tonight," for instance, Jennings disparaged Iraqi pro-American celebrations of the day before: "Yesterday we saw
images of a jubilant reception in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan where soldiers stood by as people tore down a picture of Saddam Hussein and jumped in the streets, at least for the cameras." For the cameras? Why would Iraqis fake their celebrations?
Strangely, Jennings never questioned the sincerity of pro-Saddam rallies which took place under the eye of the fedayeen. This despite reports by John Quinones, one of ABC's own reporters, that many of the participants were coerced. He taped a teacher stating, "we were forced to say it. We were, we were obliged to do.... If we don't do it, we're killed or arrested or destroyed."
On April 9, the day that statues of Saddam Hussein fell across Iraq, Peter Jennings gave his most bizarre commentary yet. Either out of utter detachment from reality, vapidness of mind, or a willful attempt to put a damper on the party, he said this during live coverage:
Saddam Hussein may have been, or may be, a vain man, but he has allowed himself to be sculpted heavy and thin, overweight and in shape, in every imaginable costume--both national, in historic terms, in Iraqi historic terms--in contemporary, in every imaginable uniform, on every noble horse. The sculpting of Saddam Hussein, which has been a growth industry for 20 years, may well be a dying art. …