BOB GARFIELD: Last week in Atlanta, a group of five journalists with very different backgrounds gathered for a discussion on war reporting. Among them were two who covered the war in Iraq, a CBS news veteran who covered World War II and Vietnam, a senior executive from CNN, and the producer of a new documentary about war coverage. They talked about how much government interference and a journalist's own allegiances influenced the reporting we see. Journalist Joshua Levs moderated the discussion and filed this report.
JOSHUA LEVS: The event was organized by the Atlanta Press Club in connection with the premiere of Reporters at War, a four-part documentary airing on the Discovery-Times Channel. Before starting our discussion, we watched the final installment. It ends with several highly-regarded British journalists complaining that news outlets, particularly TV networks, don't show images of civilians and soldiers brutally killed or maimed. [SOUND FROM DOCUMENTARY]
MAN: It should be on the air, and the reason the authorities in television, the reason governments think it - "Oh, you can't - this is obscene. We must respect the dead." [SIREN] We don't want to respect the dead. We kill them. What we want to do is to stop people seeing these images, because if they saw them, they would never, ever again support war. And we want a population that will, when we want, support wars.
MAN: Real war has never been shown on television, and never will be.
MAN: You get the impression it's highly spectacular, like a grand video game and that war is a cost-free way of settling differences. This is terribly dangerous and fundamentally untrue.
JOSHUA LEVS: Jon Blair, who produced the documentary, told the audience at an auditorium in midtown Atlanta that he had looked for some of the more horrific shots from the first Gulf War and ultimately found just two that had been mostly in the print media. One shows the charred body of an Iraqi soldier; the other a charred skull. He put both images in his documentary and hoped his editors would not take them out. JON BLAIR: I waited with bated breath, because I wasn't part of their editing process yet, as to whether they'd kept it in, and to - I, I'm pleased to say they did.
CHRIS CRAMER: I think the impression which is being given that people like me sit in dark cutting rooms saying "Out, out, out, in, in, out" and "Oh, my God, you couldn't possibly - out, out, out" [LAUGHTER] it's, it's -- I'm afraid life's not like that.
JOSHUA LEVS: Panelist Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International.
CHRIS CRAMER: The fact of the matter is that public tastes change over the years. It is different to cover a war which is being prosecuted by your own nation, whether you like it or you don't -that's a fact of war. I've seen the images you refer to. I was at the BBC when they were taken. I'm not ashamed to say to you that I was one of the people that took it out at the time. They were completely disgusting, and I would not have shown those in the middle of a war prosecuted by a nation that I was working for at the time.
JOSHUA LEVS: The relationship between a reporter and the government launching a war came under new scrutiny when the Pentagon embedded journalists with U.S. military units in Iraq. Ron Martz with the Atlanta Journal Constitution was one of them. Speaking on the panel, he said he reported whatever he saw and thought was relevant, with two exceptions, laid out by his company commander.
RON MARTZ: Don't tell them where we are, and don't tell them where we're going, because it's going to compromise their mission, it's going to compromise what we're trying to do, and if we do put them in danger, to a certain extent we're putting ourselves in danger. You can't do a very good job of reporting when you're dead.
JOSHUA LEVS: Aside from that though, did you at any point hold off on any, any reporting at all because you were concerned about how the United States could look?
RON MARTZ: No.
JOSHUA LEVS: But photographer Brent Sanderli, who traveled with Martz, said at one point someone in the military tried to interfere. BRENT SANDERLIN: Our company commander got word from a high-ranking official and said could you ask these guys to cool it a little bit. He asked him well, exactly what rules we had broken. He couldn't name any, and so he said well they're doing their job, then.
JOSHUA LEVS: CNN's Chris Cramer.
CHRIS CRAMER: Embedding, I think, though I personally hate the word, worked extremely well, under the circumstances. Probably won't be a blueprint for anything else, because it worked so well for the media. Had it have been the only way that we covered this particular conflict, it would not have worked, but it wasn't the only way. It was part of a very big jigsaw.
JOSHUA LEVS: Panelist Richard C. Hottlet, a veteran CBS news correspondent, covered World War II and Vietnam.
RICHARD C. HOTTLET: To me, one thing that stands out in the coverage of the, of the Iraq war and the aftermath of the war is the amount of time legitimately and profitably devoted to the suffering of the, of the individuals, the civilians in, in Iraq. Also the position that the soldiers were in. It's the job of the reporter to tell them all.
JOSHUA LEVS: In the Reporters at War documentary, CNN's Chris Cramer complains that some news organizations are "xenophobic, jingoistic and flag-waving." Speaking on our panel, he expressed concern that that kind of journalism could endanger reporters and feed into mistrust of the media.
CHRIS CRAMER: By and large, the world does not like this profession. There are very large parts of the world that completely loathe this profession. Many parts of the world would like us dead. You know, this, this particular conflict was the most dangerous and had the worst death toll, certainly since Vietnam, and in a sustained period it was worse than Vietnam. That's very serious. We should ask ourselves why that may be the case. So what I said in the documentary, which I stand by, is I asked organizations in print and broadcasting here and around the world to ask themselves searching questions about what the, what integrity of journalism means.
JOSHUA LEVS: Panelist Richard C. Hottlet said the war on terrorism makes a war reporter's job different from anything it's been before.
RICHARD C. HOTTLET: Casualties here are not only people, but also societies. The reporter is going to be more and more a political analyst, and a political observer. The essential is going to be to explain what it is that goes into the war --not just in terms of, of the, the mechanics, the soldiers, the bullets, the corpses, but what goes into the war in terms of, of the political dynamic. And this is going to require people who are highly educated, who have their feet on the ground morally and, and emotionally, and it's going to require of their bosses this degree of support which we haven't yet begun to measure.
JOSHUA LEVS: That kind of introspection could be more important than ever, as reporters cover this new kind of war that the panelists said has no end in sight. I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for our show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball and Derek John. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.