Networks lose sight of important war coverage

Published 5:00 am Monday, April 7, 2003

We call them our “Greatest Generation,” the folks who lived anddied during World War II. Today they are in their 70s and 80s, butunfortunately, again, with the war in Iraqi they are reliving adangerous and uncertain time in our history.

Back in the 1940s, news coverage of war was different thantoday’s. That generation did not have the term “24/7” with itsnon-stop, up-to-the-minute TV newscasts. They did not have computergraphics and bombs with cameras attached. They had individuals suchas Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith and WalterCronkite, to name a few, who kept them posted on the events half aworld away via newspaper coverage, scratchy radio broadcasts andnewsreels at movie theaters.

Rumors were big in those days, and the only source of reliableinformation was from war correspondents.

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The Vietnam Conflict was the first televised war. I can rememberthe nightly news with its photos of men in Huey helicopters, totingmachine guns, and the nightly body counts. Again, we had warcorrespondents who kept us informed as a trusted source. Newscoverage was not 24/7 as reports were still filed via land linesand film was transported to processing locations then sent to theU.S. for broadcast. For those days, news coverage wasup-to-the-minute but in reality at least 24 hours old.

Twelve years ago during the Gulf War, the term “living room” wartook on a whole new meaning. For the first time from the safety ofour homes, we could see real war as it happened. CNN — with its24-hour news format — came of age with coverage that trumped thebig three, ABC, CBS and NBC.

With CNN’s trump, a new battle was beginning — the battle ofthe TV media. Since then we have seen the growth of 24-hour news, afifth cable TV network in FOX News and 24 hour news offshoots suchas CNBC, MSNBC and FnCNN.

When the war broke out on March 19, the TV media was locked andloaded. From the comfort of our living rooms, or anywhere else a TVor Internet connected computer screen is located, we are treated toembedded correspondents, movie set style studios for newscasters,the latest in computer graphics, and the 24-hour “talking heads” –the wonderful “new”journalists who babble continuously, trying tofill airtime by asking such probing questions as, “How does it feelto have bullets whizzing past your head?”

I watched in amazement recently during a fire fight as oneembedded MSNBC correspondent, with an ill-fitting Iraqi helmetplanted on his head (because he had misplaced his own), bouncebreathlessly from soldier to soldier asking for comments as theywere busy returning fire. Is this news or a morbid form ofentertainment, I said to myself?

But what is more disturbing is the bickering and backbitingbetween the news organizations after the dismissal ofcorrespondents Peter Arnett and Geraldo Riveria last week. Fingerswere pointing and tongues were wagging to make points over whocommitted the worse offense.

In the days of Ernie Pyle, the story was the war and the humanevents surrounding the war, not who said what at a competingnetwork. War correspondents were trusted and respected, for theyunderstood the responsibility they held and conducted their effortsaccordingly.

While the TV networks with all their glitz and drama arefighting ratings battles for the most viewers, young men and womenare getting killed and the world is in turmoil.

The TV news media has a great responsibility, that is to deliveraccurate news about the status of our troops in a format that isinformative and trustworthy, not some new form of reality TV toentertain the masses.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, Miss.39602 or e-mail to