May 4, 2003
As far as reality TV goes, it doesn't get more compelling. Real war in real time, broadcast 24/7. For the better part of a month, Americans have tuned into CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and other outlets to get up-to-the-minute coverage of the war in Iraq. With "embedded" correspondents dispersed with coalition troops, television is supplying a kind of on-demand reporting never before available. The war stories that play into our living rooms may shock and awe our craving for a good narrative, but is it good journalism? It depends.
"I am indeed impressed," says Stephen Griffin, vice dean of the law school. In 1987, Griffin cowrote a paper entitled "Press Access to Military Operations," which was critical of the Pentagon for barring the press from covering the initial invasion of Grenada in 1983.
While the military for decades viewed news media as a problem, Griffin cites a sea change in attitude that has created a "press nirvana" for journalists involved in covering the current conflict. While conceding that a degree of censorship is being imposed on embedded correspondents, Griffin says that live, on-the-scene coverage helps foster a better-informed public.
"People have a much greater depth of understanding," he says. "They can make better judgments." A professor of constitutional law, Griffin sees press access to military engagement as a First Amendment issue. "In all these situations [regarding the First Amendment] the question is what should be the presumption. I would argue that the presumption here should be that we have as wide an access as possible. You don't want the press to report everything and you have to accommodate that. The guidelines now are so much better."
James Mackin, associate professor of communication and department chair, agrees that the embedded coverage is significant. "Because of the inherent drama and reality, those little vignettes have greater credibility than most of the other coverage," says Mackin. Though these short episodes sent in by field reporters tend to "blur the big picture of what the war is about," Mackin believes that these succinct eyewitness reports are seminal to journalism. "They become little events of action. Little stories in themselves, which is what journalism likesthe ability to close a story even though it is part of a larger story."
Still, viewers shouldn't think these vignettes come in unfiltered. Not only must correspondents abide by military guidelines on what is reportable; there is also another force at play. "The embedded reporter for good reason will be loyal to his or her own troops," says Mackin. "That doesn't mean they are not honest, but that they have a one-sided honest perspective."
And because the appetite of 24-hour war coverage must be constantly fed, these vignettes are constantly replayed, says Mackin, giving them a greater significance in the big picture than they might otherwise have. Thomas Langston, associate professor of political science, hints that the amount of coverage may be excessive.
"I think people at home are getting all the information they could possibly care to get, plus some."
Langston, who is contracted with WWL-TV to provide political analysis of the conflict, believes the bigger media story in the first weeks of the war was not the one about embedded reporters, but rather how the media "hounded top commanders" on whether the initial shock and awe strategy was a mistake and whether the military was regrouping around another plan. In Langston's view, there was little substance to the controversy.
"The press wanted somebody to admit it was a mistake, as if it matters. An analogy I've used is that it is like you tell your neighbor you are going to paint your house yellow and you wind up painting it mustard yellow. And he says, Why did you change your mind?" Unlike Griffin, Langston is not so certain that the military has truly changed its attitude toward the press.
"I know from surveys and analysis that the officer corps do consider the national media as the natural antagonist to the military. The embedded reporting is a response to this. It is based on the false presumption made by many people who are disliked by other peoplethat it is surely only a matter of ignorance. The press will like us once they get to know us."
Mackin, however, believes that the press will like the militaryand the military will be the big beneficiary of the relationship. "It's an ideal PR situation for them," he says. "They have reporters out in the field who are real reporters but who are reporting from the military's perspective."
Nick Marinello can be reached at email@example.com.
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