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The Whys of War

Television is mobilizing for war. Already, the Big Five TV news organizations have deployed correspondents and the heavy artillery of electronic newsgathering and distribution at the various staging areas surrounding Iraq (see Dan Trigoboff's story on page 3).

I commend ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN for the effort. It involves tens of millions of dollars and considerable risk, particularly for the men and women who will be accompanying (the 21st century term is embedded with) the combat troops.

If the war comes, TV viewers back home will have some idea of what it is like and what is going on. And the TV cameras will bear witness to the heroism and sacrifice, discourage the atrocities, and expose the stupidity that attends wars, particularly those that go on too long.

But it's not where TV should be spending its energy and millions right now. Right now, the story isn't war but whether to go to war. A majority of Americans, if the polls are correct, have been persuaded by President Bush's straightforward earnestness. Still, a substantial minority either opposes war or harbors serious doubts. The debate rages: Go. No go.

What the American public needs from TV now is skepticism and the commitment to look behind the assertions coming out of the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. Is this, as Bush would contend, merely a war to safeguard Americans, to prevent another 9/11? Or are there other motives, other pressures to take out Saddam and assert American influence in the region. There is a backstory that only journalists can tell.

In his State of the Union message, President Bush explained why the U.S. must overthrow Saddam, even if it has to go it alone. In so doing, he made a number of statements that bear hard scrutiny by the news media. It's not unpatriotic to challenge Bush claims. It's what newspeople are supposed to do.

C-SPAN last summer carried an interview with former Washington Post
Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. Asked to define journalism, Bradlee said it is the seeking of a complex and hidden—sometimes deliberately hidden—truth. In other words, real journalism is investigative journalism. It's tough, requiring lots of reporter-hours, lots of shoe leather and lots of management support (that is, money).

A call for war demands investigative journalism. Unfortunately, it has never been TV's forte, although the networks like to pretend it is. Last week, I watched Lesley Stahl preside over 48 Hours Investigates, a promising name for a news program. But the "investigation" involved gathering together four forensics experts and asking them whether a man may have been unfairly convicted of murder (Oh yes, they nodded.) The bulk of the program was a review of the case and trial.

Like 48 Hours, other TV newsmagazines have turned into the electronic equivalent of the pulp crime magazines or synergistic cross-promotions for others. They retell murder stories, using more techniques of drama than of journalism. Even 60 Minutes
doesn't so much investigate as it does make TV shows out of somebody else's investigation for newspapers, magazines or books.

Why have the broadcast networks allocated so little prime time for even addressing the rumors of war? Nobody is interested, you say; bad for ratings. I don't think so. According to Nielsen, 62 million people tuned in to the State of the Union speech (it was carried by eight networks). Undoubtedly, some were more interested in prescription-drug benefits for seniors or tax relief, but everybody wanted to know why the president seemed determined to take the country into war in a distant land.

TV could at least try to answer that question. But the medium tends to leave the serious reporting about war and peace to the big newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. TV is content to report what the administration says, provide some snap political analysis and then turn over the microphones to the politicians, pundits and experts—as long as their views aren't too radical. Fair and balanced, as Fox likes to say. Maybe, but you end up with plenty of noise, little light.

If the war comes, count on TV to do a great job getting the pictures and interviews from the front. After all, breaking news—whether a fire, a riot or a war—is what TV with its unblinking eye does best. It will answer who, what, when, where and how. In the meantime, though, it is missing the much bigger story: Why.

Jessell may be reached at