About a week into Operation Iraqi Freedom, Accuracy in Media had some preliminary observations about media coverage of the war. In the months leading up to the campaign and in the operation’s early days, the media generally predicted the war would be a “cakewalk.” But at the first sign of casualties, media coverage turned gloomy and pessimistic. The liberal media, like the Washington Post, began quoting “senior military officials,” speaking anonymously of course, questioning the overall strategy and planning for the war.
One innovation that worked well was the “embedding” of correspondents into advancing line military units. While it is true that their reports provide only a very narrow image of the war, the embedded journalists have been depicting the American soldiers and marines as brave, dedicated, and conscientious about protecting innocent Iraqi civilians. More importantly, the “embeds” often provide some much needed ground truth as an antidote to the gloomy forecasts of studio anchors half a world away. For example, a National Public Radio anchor questioned whether Iraqi guerilla activities had held up the advance of a unit with an NPR embed. The NPR anchor was clearly hoping to hear the worst. But the embed had a simple one-word answer that deflated the studio anchor ? “no.”
It also seems to us that the further from the battlefield that reporters operate, the more critical they are of U.S. military strategy and planning. In this, the Washington Post stands out as most consistently negative in its coverage of the war. For example, three days into the campaign the Post’s Thomas Ricks wrote approvingly of the race to Baghdad saying that the war was going so well that some experts were warning of overconfidence.
But two days later, after the military had suffered its first few casualties, Ricks was now expressing deep doubts about U.S. strategy. He quoted anonymous military officers saying that the advance on Baghdad had stalled and the war might take months to wrap up. Implicit in his coverage from that point on was that the war would become a “quagmire.” But recall that the media had labeled U.S. operations in Afghanistan a “quagmire” just weeks before the Taliban was destroyed and the country liberated.
Another Post reporter claimed that Iraqi guerillas had inflicted “heavy damage” on American tanks and helicopters. But this heavy damage was actually the immobilization of two main battle tanks, which would be evacuated from the battlefield and repaired, and one Apache helicopter that failed to return from a raid behind Iraqi lines. Military spokesmen still don’t know why the helicopter went down, but speculated that equipment failure may have been the reason.
The first battle casualties also seem to have traumatized much of the media. Inevitably, the networks vied to get grieving family members to tell their stories on national television. A new low was achieved when one correspondent reportedly stuck a microphone in the face of a ten-year old boy and asked him how he felt after learning that his father had been killed.