Despite Embedded Excess, Freedom Of The Press Prevails
We’re only a week into the war, but it feels like a month of Sundays. While the excessive, mind-numbing wall-to-wall coverage is warranted, I rarely watch for more than a few minutes at a time. And then only when I’m on the lookout for an update on current events in "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Media coverage of this war is radically different from any previous conflict. In the last Gulf War and in Afghanistan, severe restrictions were imposed on the media. This time the Pentagon reversed itself, due, no doubt, in part to criticism for those limitations. The press has more access than ever before, allowing hundreds of reporters to live, eat and sleep with the units to which their embedded (the term du jour for such plum assignments.) One seemingly justifiable caveat is that the embedded journalists cannot reveal sensitive information.
Of course, there’s more to this almost unconstrained access than meets the eye. The Pentagon and the Bush Administration no doubt harbored a notion of a swift victory. Permitting on-the-spot coverage is a practical public relations ploy that could bolster domestic and international public opinion for the controversial, preemptive strike, as well as counter negative propaganda and disinformation from the Iraqis and their factions.
When the bombing commenced last week, as expected, every local broadcast and cable television station, and the handful of all-news channels, offered wall-to-wall, coverage. Regular commercial programming was appropriately postponed on stations that usually present such fare.
We are a nation at war and this is the biggest international story since September 11, 2001. We are eyewitnesses to history.
The business of all-news networks, such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, is, obviously, to disseminate news all the time — 24/7 – and instantaneously. But how can anyone sit and continuously watch, especially when there’s little fresh news? Several people I’ve talked to in recent days feel the same way. Nonetheless, recent Nielsen ratings show that the average number of viewers in the first five days ranged between 6-10 million viewers per minute.
Nevertheless, despite what all-news stations label as "breaking news," that has not been the case in some instances. More often than not, there’s infrequently anything new or special to report. It’s not the fault of the media when news isn’t forthcoming, but in order to keep the story fresh and viewers glued to their sets, they’re forced to come up with some fresh tidbit or another to maintain viewer interest. As a result, they tend to resort to experts, scholars, analysts and specialists to explain and dissect a story.
To update an old adage: old soldiers never fade away; all-news networks just hire them in time of war.
In addition to retired military officers, I never realized how many connoisseurs of war there are. In the last week there seem to be dozens, each exhorting various theories and opinions on strategies and goals of the American forces.
Allowing practical, almost unrestrained, coverage by embedded journalists, who have been performing professionally, not to mention courageously, calls attention to the cherished American liberty — freedom of the press. Nevertheless, responsible journalists must not risk their integrity by becoming envoys, reporting only information the government wants the world to hear. And, the Pentagon must continue to allow the media to maintain its objectivity and not interfere with them, albeit with selected limitations that will not divulge tactical or precise details.
Regardless of the excessive media coverage and adjunct trivia emerging from the war with Iraq, it is crucial that freedom of the press remains intact and sacrosanct and not one of its secondary victims.