BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone, bringing you the soundtrack of war. [MUSIC] It's been dubbed Reality War -- real time battles with real time pictures. But a picture can mean anything, depending on who's watching.
WOMAN: Basra has been the focus of a lot of attention, and there were concerns that a humanitarian disaster could be provoked - but John look at this--
WOMAN: -- the little children and the soldiers giving them candy.
MAN: Yeah, this is...
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A survey conducted last weekend by CNN, USA Today and Gallup found that 90 percent of pro-war Americans believe themselves well-served by the coverage. Among those who oppose the war, 60 percent were satisfied. That generally good opinion, however, had already started to slide between Saturday and Sunday when the picture of the invincible coalition forces grew tattered under fire. Still, overall, the TV coverage dominated by the embedding of hundreds of reporters with military units seems to be working for the news outlets and millions of news viewers, and especially for generals, like Major-General Victor Renuart.
VICTOR RENUART: In terms of bringing the media onto the battlefield, I think this has been a, really an historic event.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Brigadier-General Vince Brooks.
VINCE BROOKS: We have embedded media so that the truth does come out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And General Tommy Franks.
TOMMY FRANKS: I'm a fan of it. I think it was a very good thing to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Pentagon's uniform delight should give pause to anyone aware of the history of war --the power of the press has been regarded as a challenge to military operations since the charge of the light brigade, and the Pentagon still believes critical reporting of Vietnam sapped the nation's will to fight. But the Pentagon was unhappy that its successes in the first gulf war went unchronicled, and so this time it put reporters in the field of battle. Some went native immediately -- like CNN's embedded reporter Walter Rodgers heard on NPR's Morning Edition Thursday. Notice the personal pronoun.
WALTER RODGERS: So we've pulled back for that, and as I say, when we were pulling back, we could see the area we had fought through two and a half days ago -- it was called Machine Gun Alley -- and when we pulled back there were lots of dead Iraqis...
JACK SHAFER: The Pentagon officers who'd conceived in advance the embedded program should step forward and demand a fourth star for their epaulet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Jack Shafer writes the Press Box column for Slate.com. He says that the embedded reporters provided a steady stream of positive press in the early stages of the war, but as the news grows grimmer, it's unclear whether the Pentagon will stay pleased. The military, however, has covered its flanks with other embeds of a different sort in TV newsrooms -- retired generals.
JACK SHAFER: There's no parallel anywhere in, in journalism to what the TV generals are doing. In many cases, the TV generals seem to have staged this sort of passive coup of the television newscasts.
CHRIS KRAMER: I think the arm chair generals, as I choose to call them, have provided a level of military analysis which I find quite interesting as a viewer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Chris Kramer is in charge of CNN International which operates CNN's channels overseas. He says it would be unfair to judge the coverage on the basis of one evening or one week or even one month, because the story is unfolding at breakneck speed.
CHRIS KRAMER: There are people in control rooms here who are making second to second decisions about which particular story they're including -- and I stress, there's no text book for any of this. You know there isn't some wise person sitting in control rooms making every single call and having the wonderful benefit of hindsight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One decision was to run only brief, relatively tame bits of the grisly footage of killed and captured American soldiers broadcast all over the world by Al Jazeera and other networks.
CHRIS KRAMER: Journalists will have a series of intellectual debates about how you depict the horror of war, how you depict the horror of death. You can put it on unedited and let the audience make their own mind up, which is what some broadcasters choose to do, but not from the civilized journalistic world that I'm used to; certainly not from the BBC that I'm used to; not from the CNN that I'm used to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There was an interesting argument on ABC, live of course, between anchor Charles Gibson and embedded reporter and anchor Ted Koppel. Gibson defended the decision not to run the footage. Koppel disagreed. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press at Harvard stands with Koppel. He says show it -- not incessantly, but once or perhaps twice, and make the Iraqis treatment of POWs part of the record of this war.
ALEX JONES: I think that the fact that they were abusing was news, and I think that's something that should have been reported as news. I think that the American public should be able to see what people in other parts of the world see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Increasingly, news consumers are going to the foreign media, via the Internet or satellite TV to fill in the blanks. Jamal Djani, director of Middle East programming for Worldlink TV, says that the contrary to popular belief, access is much better over there!
JAMAL DJANI: All that you have to do is just go to Beirut or go to a high building in Cairo and look at the rooftops. You will see thousands and thousands of satellite television that makes everything accessible to them from European TV to even American television -- they can watch CNN right there in their living rooms in Cairo or in Baghdad or in Saudi Arabia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In America, he says, there's too much coverage broadcast from hotel rooftops in Kuwait and not enough from the Arab street, and he offers a solution -- a free flow of information among networks, using each other's reporters, airing each other's reports, political spin be damned.
JAMAL DJANI: You can either stop the flow of information, period, and say well we don't trust the Arab journalists and they're saying the same thing -- or you can leave it to the listeners and say they are intelligent enough to determine what is propaganda and what is not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As it turned out, on the very evening I spoke to Djani, CNN had an hour long interview with a bureau chief from Abu Dhabi Television and ABC's Nightline offered two reports from the Arab street. [CROWD NOISES]
MAN: There was a stampede when the Kuwaiti Red Crescent showed up with 20,000 meals, all under the protection of U.S. Marines and British troops, and although at least one reporter on the scene was overheard phoning in a live report about how the Iraqis were dancing with joy, they were not dancing and it was not joyful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The metaphor most applied to the coverage of the war in Iraq is that of a jigsaw puzzle that has to be assembled in small pieces. We also have to factor in the fog of war -- was there a popular uprising in Basra or not? Did U.S. troops uncover a chemical factor or not? And when exactly did U.S. troops take the port of Umm Qasr? There's a tendency to rush to judgment in first reports from the field, and it may be that this is the worst war coverage ever, except for the coverage of virtually every other war in recent times. Alex Jones.
ALEX JONES: I look at it against what happened in the Persian Gulf the first time; what happened in Grenada, what happened in Panama, what happened in Afghanistan, and I consider it to be a great improvement over any of those simply because the military has allowed the reporters to have access to the front. I think that's an enormous step, and I think it's something that is - has made the entire process of reporting more honest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And frankly, more thrilling -- at least to anyone who was tuned to CNN at 1 a.m. last Sunday and saw a live firefight between U.S. Marines and Iraqi snipers near Umm Qasr. CNN's Chris Kramer watched it and--
CHRIS KRAMER: I thought as I drove home that night that you know no longer would many children around the world have to ask their fathers what they did in the war, because in one way they could actually witness it on television; that's when I realized that television news had made a paradigm shift.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Television news outlets have been plagued with charges of jingoism, of strategic omission, of over-reliance on embeds and ex-generals, but the coverage is already evolving, changing one hopes for the better. And meanwhile TV viewers have an astonishingly close up and personal first draft of history.