Live, but Not Really

The networks can show us more war than ever before—but they’re choosing not to.

In the 12 years since the last Gulf War, the military has made enormous technological advances: more accurate smart bombs, unmanned scouting drones, computers that show commanders the entire battlefield. The media, too, have seen quantum leaps in technology, with the hand-held videophones and lightweight laptopswe keep hearing about. All this, combined with the Pentagon’s policy of “embedding”—a word that once conjured up shrapnel, not journalists—has resulted in warfare of unparalleled media access. Civilians can theoretically see more of what’s going on than ever before.

But what are the American TV networks doing with this opportunity?

What was striking about the past week’s coverage was, paradoxically, how often the latest equipment made the live war less immediate than it was on the old-fashioned photographic film shot in Vietnam, which had to be processed in a lab before anyone could see it. So far, there has been little unvarnished ground-level detail, let alone Black Hawk Down scenes of gritty action. Instead, the broadcast news channels spend the bulk of the day oohing and aahing about military hardware or serving as very expensive communications systems for soldiers to talk to their families back home (“Hi mom! I’m OK!”).

There’s nothing wrong with this human-interest reporting on its own terms, but live TV has overemphasized novelty and sensation, such as an MSNBC reporter excitedly experiencing a sandstorm, which was transmitted at length in a fuzzy orange-pink haze on Tuesday morning. Correspondents are on duty 24 hours a day, in Baghdad, in Kuwait, in southern Iraq, resulting in a patchwork quilt of stories presented with varying technical finesse—from the eerie green X-Files-weirdness of nightscope cameras,to reporters digitally morphing on videophone, Terminator-style, on up to the crisp satellite videotape that NBC spent a year “secretly” investing in and developing. (The war is costing NBC some $10 million dollars a day.) The same images appear over and over, with no depth of description. Though 86 percent of the American public turn to the TV as their primary source of war news, many are discovering that watching the war on TV, while drearily hypnotizing, is at best an inefficient use of time. At worst, it’s a deeply frustrating exposure to journalism that’s as oversimplified as the “Operation Iraqi Freedom” war rubric.

The content problem is obvious. The seminal images of this war are nothing if not tastefully bland: a soldier tearing down a poster of Saddam; or two soldiers planting a flag, Iwo-Jima style, in the ground; or Iraqi children waving by the side of a road. On Sunday, fighting turned truly unpredictable for the first time—a dozen or so U.S. soldiers were killed, up to 12 were taken captive, and Iraqi troops began attacking coalition forces while disguised as civilians. But the U.S. networks decided not to show footage of the Iraqis’ treatment of POWs, as broadcast by Iraqi TV and picked up by Al Jazeera and other networks. (In fact, Face the Nation showed the footage, then fresh off Iraqi TV, to Donald Rumsfeld while he was on the air for an interview; Bob Schieffer later said he shouldn’t have.)

The rationale was not self-evident. Twelve years ago, American networks aired videos of U.S. POWs held by the Iraqis in that Gulf War. But this time, all complied with a Pentagon request  “not to air or publish recognizable images or audio recordings that identify POWs.” (Weirdly, you can imagine the administration taking the opposite approach to the POW issue, hoping to use Iraq’s propagandistic exploitation of the prisoners for propaganda of its own.) The networks quietly fell in line, even as Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, and the BBC went ahead and broadcast images of POWs, dead American soldiers, and Baghdad up close and personal—the stuff we all had expected this new war of embedment to show us.

As many viewers quickly figured out, if you watch the BBC or go prospecting on the Internet you get a more balanced and detailed picture. During and after Friday’s “shock and awe” campaign, where American TV cameras generally kept a neutral middle distance, with no foreground but the CNN crawl, the BBC got right into the street-level thick of it—a British reporter poked around the rubble and broadcast images of Iraqi civilians in hospital beds. And the written reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere—John F. Burns’ accounts from Baghdad, say—has been infinitely more vivid than most of what you see and hear on ABC.

It’s right and reasonable for the U.S. networks to apply standards of taste and sensitivity (though it’s an odd standard that says it’s perfectly acceptable to show a sound-and-light show of Baghdad’s destruction so long as there are no troubling bloody bits). But so far the American networks’ choices look less like editorial wisdom and more like carrying water for the Bush administration. Worse, even as the networks have prettified the war, they’ve earnestly protested they were doing no such thing. “We’re not in the business of sanitizing,” Aaron Brown said more than once on Monday night. “It’s not our business to make war look pretty or fun.” Meanwhile, he made it clear that even if CNN decides to air pictures of American POWs, he personally objects to doing so.

But there’s a difference between good taste and paternalism. Ted Koppel put the case against the latter well on ABC Monday night, when he asserted, in an on-air disagreement with Charlie Gibson, that it’s important for Americans to see what war’s all about, even at the risk of having their sensibilities offended.

It’s clear that Iraq violated the Geneva Conventions when it broadcast interviews of U.S. prisoners. But there’s no reason our media can’t broadcast such images (especially in trying to report the news of such a violation)—only states and soldiers are bound by the Geneva Conventions. (In fact, most of the networks went on to show photographs and video footage of two Apache helicopter pilots captured on Monday.) Nor do the networks have a coherent argument for not broadcasting images of dead soldiers. Some, like NBC, say they want to avoid doing so before family has been notified. Fair enough. But if war is going to be televised, the networks ought to have a discriminating way to portray what’s happening—perhaps by blacking out faces, the way they do on reality cop shows. They shouldn’t simply tell us, as Charlie Gibson did, that airing the pictures of dead bodies is “disgraceful.” (This is itself an odd sentiment, and it’s worth remembering that such squeamishness about bodies is an American one; in Latin America and elsewhere they regularly show the dead on television—whether murder victims or war fatalities.)

Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on the networks for occasional lapses of judgment; their task is an overwhelmingly difficult one. But the arguments made by Brown, Gibson, and others against televising these painful images suggest that, in the name of “good taste,” weought never have seen much of the Vietnam footage that proved essential to our understanding of that war. And whatever the networks (or the administration) might think, access to the ugly reality over in Iraq won’t necessarily breed anti-war sentiment, as it did in Vietnam; indeed, it might make Americans only more eager to get the bastards. No one is proposing that we televise all the grotesque details of war. But the networks should trust the public more and the Bush administration less.