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The Media at War

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Sievers: It’s not just war. Anybody who ever reads a police story—we have people in police stations. John used to be a White House correspondent. He dressed like the president, dark suit, white shirt, red tie. And nobody ever said, “You know, John’s starting to identify with the president too much.”

Was covering the war fun?

Donvan: The truth is, some of the embeds really enjoyed dressing up.

MacArthur: When I see Walt Rogers on CNN announcing while they’re speeding toward Baghdad, “This is fun!,” I think, This is a joke, this is a circus performance, not journalism in a traditional sense that I grew up with. It hearkened back to 1880s and 1890s journalism that Pulitzer and Hearst were so good at. It was a show—until it got ugly and then it wasn’t so much fun anymore.

Hemmer: I listened to Rogers virtually every time he was on the air and I never remember the word fun coming out of his mouth.

What about journalists who traveled independently?

Hewitt: I think the natural state for people in our business is to not be embedded, and to be sort of lone wolves. I think all of us would feel we are at our best when we’re on our own . . . But someTimes when you want to see a part of the war, you have to report from a certain side.

Donvan: The other problem with being a unilateral was that it was crazy dangerous. Much more unsafe than I expected. The British were particularly unfriendly to us. And it was dangerous because the Iraqis weren’t convinced that we were neutral. And in fact, we weren’t.

Leventhal: I would never go unilateral in a war. You guys are nuts. I’d much rather be surrounded by men with guns who are pointing away from me.

What happens when journalists become the story?

Molly Bingham, photojournalist, WorldPictureNews: I was arrested on March 25th by Iraq security forces, interrogated, and subsequently released. We were all a bit surprised we were the story that week. I was and still am uncomfortable being the story. I was very glad to get back to Baghdad, and got back to working on a story of women political prisoners who I felt deserved the spotlight I had.

What about Danny Pearl?

Steiger: One of the reasons that Danny made an attractive target was that they wanted to make propaganda out of his death and they calculated that his being an American and a journalist would increase the visibility of his murder. They went to great efforts to document the horrible way they killed him and then went to great lengths apparently to smuggle a disk with images of it to Saudi Arabia to put it up on the Web. Not only are they not protected, they can be targeted and are likely to be targeted.

Was the strike on the Palestine Hotel aimed at journalists?

Barry Moody, editor, Middle East and Africa regions, Reuters: We know what happened but don’t know with any degree of accuracy why it happened. I don’t think there was a deliberate attempt to hit a hotel full of journalists. We were told that the commanders knew, but for some reason the troops on the ground were not aware that it contained journalists.

Or just Al-Jazeera?

Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington, D.C., bureau chief, Al-Jazeera: Even before the war, we had a meeting with the Pentagon. We said, “You did it before, in Afghanistan, and you said it was because you didn’t have the coordinates.” So we gave them the coordinates for Baghdad. One of them joked, “As long as you stay away from the Presidential Palace, you’ll be fine.” But they did target the Al-Jazeera office. The first missile hit an electric generator. Then they came back, resulting in the death of a reporter and the injury of a cameraman. There is no explanation.

Maybe because Paul Wolfowitz thinks they’re the enemy?

Al-Mirazi: Just yesterday, at a briefing, he said: Aside from securing our troops in Iraq, our few remaining challenges are, first, electricity; second, jobs; third, Al-Jazeera and other Arab stations who aren’t doing a helpful job for us in Iraq. And when you hear that from someone who’s as important in this administration as the Information minister was in Iraq, it’s really scary.

Whose side is Al-Jazeera on?

Al-Mirazi: The sad thing for me is that some of the American networks behaved in similar ways as government-controlled stations in the Arab world before 9/11. They used to call us the Israeli-U.S.-backed network. We were suspected of trying to divide the Arab world. The Americans were so positive about us before 9/11, but afterward, when we gave both sides, they behaved the same way that other government-controlled media in the Arab world did to us.

Can any country cover itself objectively at war?

Younge: Nations at war do not do particularly well. The British covered Ireland, the French covered Algeria, appallingly. The American media was out of kilter with the rest of the world--but I don't think they were out of kilter with a large segment of the American public.

Rusbridger: With the troubles in Northern Ireland, the boot was on the other foot. It was the British who were under attack, sometimes quite severe and sustained attack, often without warning, and often upon civilians. And it would be fair to say that it wasn't the British press's finest moment. Because we all went into bunker mode... it was American journalists who were at the vanguard of exposing abuses going on.

Did the media miss the WMD story before the war?

Mark Whitaker, editor, Newsweek: We knew a lot of intelligence was flimsy before the war. I think most people understood that the reason we were going to war was because the Bush administration was determined to go to war on this timetable. And I’m not sure it was the intelligence which convinced anyone.

Or did the public just not tune in?

Whitaker: As hot and bothered as we might all get about the justifications before the war, given the costs of the war Americans make a simple cost-benefit analysis. If it was a fast, decisive victory, I don’t think most Americans would care if we found weapons of mass destruction or not. If it’s an open-ended confrontation which would bleed us slowly, that could be a problem.

Younge: The point is that in the political context in America, there weren’t that many takers for certain kinds of information. In the same way that, in Britain after the Harrod’s bombing, there weren’t that many takers for, you know, Irish independence.

Well, what if we were lied to? How much of a problem is it for Bush and Blair?

Sidney Blumenthal, author, The Clinton Wars: It’s different in both countries, parallel but divergent. Blair supported Bush and pushed him at the same time. He supported him in order to play a role, first on the U.N. track, and then pushed him to support a road map for peace in the Middle East as a price for his support. And then Bush pushed back, to get him to support his rationale for the war. So Blair’s response was to create these dossiers. Bush had, in the run-up to the war, not much questioning on the issue, although you had the CIA, State Department, and many people in the Pentagon as doves. Now, afterwards, you have a pebble, which, as always, starts an avalanche. You have these sixteen words which Ari Fleischer now admits were not true. So the next thing you do is you’re running to different offices in the White House—who knew what, did it involve this office or that, and who was responsible—and it’s just beginning.

Whitaker: What sets this administration apart from previous administrations is not spin. Every administration spins. They’ve tried to enforce this absolute message discipline throughout the administration: Nobody leaks, nobody gets off-message. They’ve been willing to intimidate their own people. But as it begins to fall apart, if it does, then there are a lot of people in Washington who so resent the way they’ve been treated by this administration that something could happen.

Karl E. Meyer, editor, World Policy Journal: It was like the first drops of blood in the aquarium with the piranhas.

Hemmer: When it comes to going to war in the future, if we don’t find the WMDs, doesn’t it make it a lot harder from this point further for the government to go to war again?

MacArthur: They’ll fake it again. They’re very good at propaganda.

The Participants
Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington-bureau chief, Al-Jazeera; Emily Bell, editor-in-chief, Guardian Unlimited (the Guardian’s Website); Molly Bingham, photojournalist, WorldPictureNews; Sidney Blumenthal, author, former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton; David Chater, correspondent, Sky News; John Donvan, correspondent, ABC News’ Nightline; Mike Elliott, editor-at-large, Time; Jonathan Foreman, embedded reporter and editorial-board member, New York Post; Suzanne Goldenberg, Washington correspondent, the Guardian; Bill Hemmer, anchor, CNN’s American Morning; Gavin Hewitt, special correspondent, BBC; John Kampfner, reporter, BBC’s War Spin; Rick Leventhal, correspondent, Fox News Channel; John R. (Rick) MacArthur, president and publisher, Harper’s; James Meek, correspondent, the Guardian; Karl E. Meyer, editor, World Policy Journal; Barry Moody, editor, Middle East and Africa region, Reuters; Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief, the Guardian; Stephen Schlesinger, director, World Policy Institute, the New School; Leroy Sievers, executive producer, ABC News’ Nightline; Paul Steiger, managing editor, Wall Street Journal; Adrian Van Klaveren, head of newsgathering, BBC; Mark Whitaker, editor, Newsweek; Gary Younge, New York correspondent, the Guardian. Excerpts for this story compiled by Carl Swanson.


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