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Analysis: TV war is very new and a little strange

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The war in Iraq may qualify as the ultimate TV reality show -- except for those moments that seem almost surreal.

With correspondents embedded in combat units and armed with tools that enable them to report live from the front, television lets us ride along in American tanks racing toward Baghdad, hear descriptions of ongoing battles and see the troops going about their business.

In terms of bringing the conflict back home, war reporting has never been like this. All-news cable channel MSNBC offered a taped interview with a wounded soldier and then aired a live telephone call from his mother.

"The embedded reporters have allowed us to know approximately where he is," Elizabeth Menard said. "You can hardly stand to watch, but you certainly can't turn it away. It's helpful to know where he is. When they are having difficult times, you can still follow them."

She saw her wounded son, Joshua, clearly enough to sound like a mother: "He needs a bath and a shave."

Kerry Sanders, the MSNBC reporter embedded with her son's unit, described how Menard's stretcher had to be tilted slightly so the satellite phone would point in the proper direction. Sanders dialed the number.

As interactive war coverage goes, it marks an advance that would have been unimaginable during the Gulf War of 1991, when viewers had to be content with photos provided by the American military of smart bombs hitting their targets like action in a video game.

It is an advance not lost upon Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"I think we're probably watching something that is somewhat historic," Rumsfeld said at his Friday briefing. "We're having a conflict at a time in our history when we have 24-hours-a-day television, radio, media, Internet, and more people in the world have access to what is taking place. What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq ... What you see is taking place, to be sure, but it is one slice. And it is the totality of that that is what this war is about.

"I doubt that in a conflict of this type there's ever been the degree of free press coverage as you are witnessing in this instance."

The pictures of smart bombs from the first Gulf War pale beside this war's vivid live shots of explosions in Baghdad caused by American air and missile strikes, especially on the first day of what was dubbed the "shock and awe" campaign.

Previously, the generals left it to the networks to come up with logos and catch phrases for their coverage.

As they have in the past, the broadcast networks and the three major cable news channels -- CNN, Fox News and MSNBC -- are using retired military men as analysts, interviews with their own reporters and with outside newsmakers, visual tools such as maps and computer graphics.

On CNN, three men stood around a map with cutouts of tanks and soldiers representing Iraqi and allied units. On CBS yesterday morning, anchor Dan Rather pointed with a pencil to a map of Iraq on a TV screen.

But much of the coverage was more immediate, particularly from the reporters embedded with military units in Iraq and Kuwait.

Over the weekend, when American tank units raced through the desert toward Baghdad, CNN's Walter Rodgers was among the reporters along for the ride, holding a camera offering bouncing images of tanks barreling through desolate stretches of desert sand. The pictures tended to break up digitally, like a video game with poor resolution.

Those who might be expecting embedded reporters to offer live pictures of soldiers in battle were in for a disappointment. When troops were engaged, we might hear a reporter's voice and see a map showing where the battle was going on. Or an anchor might relay the report.

At times, the most current developments came up superimposed in print on screen while anchors conducted interviews or rehashed the day's news for the benefit of those just tuning in.

Over the weekend, MSNBC's Sanders crouched behind a hill while describing in general terms a firefight going on beyond sight of the camera except for a plume of smoke rising in the distance.

Yesterday, Fox News reporter Greg Kelly, with the 3rd Infantry, offered a taped shot of soldiers lying prone on an embankment, their rifles posed at the ready. At one point, whoever is holding the camera walks right up to one of the soldiers, who looks back with a quizzical look on his face.

Kelly, himself a Marine reservist, said he was tempted to pick up a radio and help out during one engagement.

Such close identification with the soldiers can be both an advantage and a danger to the journalists. The fighting men and women may learn to trust them more, but the reporters could lose objectivity. But, Kelly was quick to add, "We are observers."

The live portion of his report yesterday was filed as night had fallen in Iraq. Kelly was visible in the familiar green night lighting, looking almost like an apparition, his eyes two bright dots.

One of the more jarring images occurred when air raid sirens went off in Kuwait City and a reporter on the scene appeared wearing a gas mask. It was one of several false alarms during the day.

But along with the news of an Apache helicopter being shot down, of several Americans being taken prisoner, of fierce battles between allied forces and Iraq's more elite units, it emphasized a truth that seems obvious but which reporters and anchors felt compelled to state from time to time.

In the words of CBS anchor Rather: "War is cruel."

Ron Weiskind, movie editor and former television critic, can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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