War and Pieces

I'm in my own shock and awe," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News, as she assessed the stream of unprecedented live footage coming from the Iraqi war front last week and the network's daily struggle to put it all in the proper context for viewers.

As the second week of the war began, McGinnis' counterparts at other networks agreed with her on the key challenge—piecing together all the "slices" (as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them) from the front lines and blending them with all the other available information to come up with a coherent story.

It has been hard, so far, for the networks to find a focus; all those pieces of war footage from a small army of embeds never make a whole pie.

"It's like looking at the battlefield through 30 straws," remarked Paul Slavin, executive producer of World News Tonight
with Peter Jennings

While some critics found fault with the networks' coverage—saying it was too sanitized and wasn't as cynical as other worldwide networks were showing, for example—by and large the news organizations got good marks for their war coverage, and for embedding reporters with troops.

One concern: when things get really ugly would the public freak out and would the Pentagon start to clamp down on news from the front?

Two weekends ago, when the war was just days old, the Pew Research Center did see the public mood swing. Though American still overwhelmingly backed using military force against Iraq, the percentage of respondents who thought the war was going "very well" for the U.S. dropped from 71% on Friday and Saturday to 38%.

Did the TV images do that?

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institute expert on media and the war on terrorism thinks so, at least to an extent. "I compare it to a house of mirrors in a funhouse. The big becomes bigger and the small becomes smaller and good news turned out to be great news and bad news turned out to be horrendous news."

Slavin's recipe for arriving at the truth acknowledges that news organizations are busy separating what they know from what they think they know: "You take every bit of information that you have from embeds, and you treat it as a tiny slice of the battlefield. You compare that to what you're getting from the military briefings, al Jazeera, Iraqi TV and every other conceivable source and you weight each piece depending on the source, and talk to your analysts. Then you drop it all in a big bag, shake it up and hope that what you come up with is some sort of clarity."

John Stack, vice president of news gathering at Fox News, added that enlightened speculation is also a part of the mix. "Don't think anyone expects the Pentagon to reveal military strategy." But retired military generals can provide viewers with some sense on tactics and strategy. "That is something we should do with the experts and we can speculate," says Stack.

NBC News president Neal Shapiro said he's been struck by how closely the Pentagon briefings have been "in sync" with what's coming from the embeds.

"You can't get the God's Eye view," he said. "Each snapshot is not the war, it's a single moment in time. But we have enough of them throughout the day that when married with smart analysis, we can give people some general sense about what's happening."

For now, most observers say the embeds have filled an information void and allowed TV to do some valuable first hand reporting on a war.

That's a dramatic change from the wars in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War, where there was no live reporting from the front lines and news organizations relied almost solely on the Pentagon for updates on the progress of those military actions.

Bob Zelnick, former ABC foreign correspondent and now head of the journalism department at Boston University, said the networks generally are doing a "first-rate job."

That's not to say the coverage has been flawless. Zelnick cited examples where all the networks swallowed the Pentagon's spin on things hook, line and sinker. Case in point, the coalition's claim of having established a "Northern front." Not that the paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade aren't excellent soldiers, but 1,000 lightly armed troops with light vehicles doesn't constitute a "front," he said. "They're not going to be a match numerically or equipment wise for any Republican Guard division."

So far, the network coverage has been largely devoid of the kind of carnage that would make a typical viewer's stomach turn. But that could change at any moment.

All of them passed on the opportunity to air the gut wrenching footage that Arab network al Jazeera aired of several U.S. soldiers who'd been killed, some at close range. "We intend to show the dead and wounded, but not in a gruesome way," said CBS's McGinnis. What remains to be seen, is just how the immediacy of the war coverage, gruesome images and grieving parents and loved ones will sway long-term viewer opinion.

Hess contends the Pentagon approved imbeds to lend credibility to its daily briefings. "The idea was let the media be the messenger," he said. But the policy was designed for a short, "antiseptic" war.

"If the war turns our to be neither," he said, " then the question is how successful will this policy be?"

Allison Romano contributed to this story.