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The Media at War

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The BBC is under siege for accusing the government of “sexing up” the WMD reports. What’s at stake?

Adrian Van Klaveren, head of newsgathering, BBC: What’s at stake here is the BBC’s ability to question governments, the inquisitorial approach which is one of the hallmarks of British journalism. Our ability to hold governments to account. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. We have to be making sure that we’re not just reporting events, we’re finding things out. This is not passive journalism. This is about trying to get information which others don’t want us to know.

Rusbridger: The BBC is easily the most trusted institution in the country, and you feel like the government and the right-wing media almost want to bring it down.

Did the Bush administration use the American press as a weapon?

Paul Steiger, managing editor, Wall Street Journal: There’s a tendency on all of our parts to overplay our roles. But in this kind of warfare, where both sides are using their own version of shock and awe, things are done for effect. You have all sides trying to make points through the media. And therefore, how we respond to it is important.

Stephen Schlesinger, director, World Policy Institute, the New School: The issue isn’t just bias in the American media; it’s intimidation. I think the Bush administration has exploited 9/11 to the point where people think they have to be either with us or against us.

MacArthur: But I don’t think this quite explains why the American press corps turned into a corps of stenographers in September and October. There’s will here—we want to be a part of the government effort.

Was the press looking for the feel-good story?

John Donvan, correspondent, ABC News’ Nightline: Our car was literally looted in Safran the first day. The very first day, I reported that it was unstable in the place where just yesterday people were cheering. And our editors in New York were saying, “Well, John, could you get us some of those pictures of people cheering?”

Jonathan Foreman, embedded reporter, the New York Post: On more than one occasion, I’d be writing stories about how exhausted and pissed off the troops were—I’d find they were topped by a headline like TROOPS CAN'T WAIT TO GET THEIR HANDS ON THE REPUBLICAN GUARD.

What about the Fox effect?

Elliott: Fox presents itself with a pure political point of view, which is different from pretty much anything that goes on in journalism in this country, outside of the New York Post. There is a difference—if I was still an academic, I would say a semiotic difference—in the way it does what it does.

Younge: The problem is the same one we faced in Britain with Thatcher. The liberals thought, She’s crazy, she’s a lunatic, anyone who supports her is a lunatic. And what we didn’t realize was that she had tapped into a fairly ugly vein of Britishness that we would have to deal with. Fox is doing well because it’s engaged in a vein of the population which, if you don’t learn how to deal with it and turn it around, is just going to get bigger and bigger.

Should we have seen more dead bodies?

Hemmer: What we saw was far too clean and sterile in the U.S. War is an ugly thing.

Gavin Hewitt, special correspondent, BBC: You could never get close to the Iraqi people when you’re embedded. You were always speeding through.

Donvan: We never show you how horrible it really is. It really is much, much worse than anything you ever see on television. You can’t imagine. And we talk about that. We don’t show it to you. The principle isn’t that we’re trying to be pro-American. It’s something that falls more into standards and practices. We don’t show naked breasts, and we don’t show the guy burnt in a tank. And we talk all the time about that: Should we break that taboo? And if we did, that would have huge impact. Huge.

Leroy Sievers, executive producer, ABC News’ Nightline: And the danger is that if we don’t, then it becomes too sanitized.

Rusbridger: Last week, we published the first picture of a dead American. We’d been looking for one since the beginning of the conflict, not because we were particularly desperate to publish one, but the imbalance between dead coalition forces and dead Iraqis was becoming an embarrassment.

Did the experiment with embeds work?

Foreman: Most of us in the media had no experience whatsoever with the military or its institutions, most of us had never been in the Army, only what we’ve seen in the movies. That’s part of why I think there were so many references to Vietnam in the media. Some of them might’ve been there, but more likely because they’d seen Platoon. We have all these received images, and what was interesting was to report what these people were really like, who they were, and how they behaved.

James Meek, correspondent, the Guardian: The real problem was that the Iraqi Army didn’t have any journalists embedded with it. You wouldn’t think much of a boxing match—say, the recent Lewis-Johnson fight—if the camera only showed Lewis punching, dodging, but you didn’t know what or who he was fighting.

Were the embeds in bed with the people they were covering?

Rick Leventhal, embedded correspondent, Fox News Channel: It was difficult. We were dressing like them and we were eating and sleeping with them and we became a part of them. But at the same time, I reminded myself of what I was there to do. I was there to tell stories. And if I found a story they didn’t want me to tell, I’d do it. For example, when we ran low on food, and we were eating one to two meals a day instead of three, they didn’t want me to report that, but I did. We were there to tell their stories. We weren’t there to tell the entire story of the war.

Hewitt: I didn’t think I was there to tell their stories. I was there to tell as much of the war as I could see. I recognized that I was dependent on them for my safety. And that is a powerful bond. But every day, I was very conscious that this war was a controversial war, especially in the UK. They weren’t all tied up with the excitement and whether it was a B-52 or a Humvee.


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