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War in Iraq Special Report
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War in Iraq:
Covering the News

With Tom Rosenstiel
Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

Thursday, April 10, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Coverage of the war in Iraq has been more immediate than any war before. Much has been broadcast live on television, radio and the Internet. The world watched a statue of Saddam Hussein fall to the ground on live television Wednesday as jubilant Iraqis welcomed the allied forces.

What are the effects of real-time news on reporting the story? Are embedded reporters totally unbiased? What is the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon with journalists? Is the full story being told?

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, was online Thursday, April 10 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss today's war coverage and its effect on public perception and opinion.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is funded primarily by The Pew Charitable Trust.

Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek magazine, has been a journalist for more than 20 years. He is the author of several books on journalism, the media and politics. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New Republic, The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review and the Washington Monthly.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Rosenstiel, thanks for being with us today. The war with Iraq has been the first one broadcast live to the world. What is your feeling about this new kind of coverage?

Tom Rosenstiel: This is not strictly the first war broadcast on TV live, but it is different from the first Gulf War in that there are 600 embedded reporters in the field, in contrast to the much more limited number of "censored" pool reporters in the Gulf War, plus uncensored "unilateral" reporters. I think the increased number of reporters and points of contact with the battlefield helps the public. In the Gulf War we knew only what we were told. Now we also know something of what we can see.

Gaithersburg, Md.: My concern about the war coverage is that news unrelated to the war gets unreported. I wish Americans got equal time to voice there concerns as Iraqi citizens have had. The state of Maryland as well as many other states are facing grave budget cuts but finding time to cover our concerns is impossible within 24-hour war coverage. When do you think the media will follow the stock markets lead and notice local problems?

Tom Rosenstiel: This is a serious problem. It was a problem during the first Gulf War. In general, the news media has become more monomaniacal in its approach to news than 12 years ago. One reason for this is budget cutting, especially in TV, which makes it harder for the press, in effect, to cover several fronts or issues at once. Another reason, ironically, is embedded reporting and greater access to the battlefield. More information about the war means that reporting will get used, which leaves less room for other things. A third reason is that TV, especially cable, has found that overcovering a single blockbuster story--rather than covering a lot of things--is not only somewhat less costly and easier intellectually, but it feeds the culture of the talk show that now predominates the prime time schedules of cable TV.

ALl this would be a problem in any circumstance, but it is probably even worse now given how important and far reaching the economy and its impact is as a story, the impact of the war on the international front in Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and so many other stories that need coverage.

Jonesboro, Ga.: Embedded? Sounds more to me that they are 'in bed with Pentagon'. It is my considered opinion that the reporting during this war has been very tame. Why? I think it has to do with the reporters being embedded with the military whom they see as providing them the security they need to do their jobs and in turn are unable to be critical of them. What we therefore see is an attempt to sanitize reports so as not to offend the brass and or criticize other national news outlets who show us footage we think is offensive. I think the embedded reporters can't wait until they get home to sign lucrative book deals and tell us their stories! Journalists should be independent and report to us what they see and let us make up our minds.

Tom Rosenstiel: The term embedded is certainly an unfortunate one. On balance, it is a great opportunity, but it is also true that the military agreed to embedding because planners recognized that if you place reporters with one unit, limiting their point of view in effect and creating a kind of natural intimacy with the soldiers there, reporters would inevitably tend to tell the story from that point of view. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as other points of view are added to the coverage from elsewhere.

Beyond embedding, there is often a problem with the press becoming more jingoistic in its coverage during war. Truth, we know, is considered the first casualty of war. This is partly a function of this surge of jingoism and partly because of the natural confusion on the scene.

The other problem is that journalists--a little like politicians--feel pressure not to stray too far beyond what their audience wants to hear. Covering a war that is popular is a challenge for reporters. How do you cover dissent? How do you cover the unpopular? How do you tell your readers things they may not want to hear or disagree with? It can be done, but it is harder.

Add to this the unfortunate "branding" mentality of some news organizations, that consciously want to attract audience by exploiting the popularity of the war in their coverage. MSNBC and Fox, for instance, have both adopted the Pentagon term "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as their branding slogan for the war, which they repeat over and over. This is a political phrase, not a independent description of the war, and adopting it as your own distorts that organization's ability to depict how the rest of the world views this war, which is an important story.

Wheaton, Md.: Would you agree that the real-time war coverage forces reporters to be more honest, since there is less time to put a liberal, pro-Saddam spin as many reporters love to do?

Tom Rosenstiel: No. I think "real-time" war coverage means less time to think, verify, reflect and contextualize. Bias in the press is usually an unconscious and cultural reflex. Less time usually means more bias, not less.

Penfield, N.Y.: A new book entitled "World in Chaos" by Harvard professor, Dr.Winston Smith postulated that much of the erroneous information broadcast on cable news networks was planted there by foreign governments.

What are your comments on this?"

Tom Rosenstiel: It's impossible to know whether information was "planted" but speed in journalism is always the enemy of accuracy, and the 24-hour news culture means that more erroneous information is aired than before. We are reaching a point, as the President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors suggested in her excellent speech yesterday in New Orleans at that group's convention, where the grapevine of rumor and assertion are passing as news.

Somewhere, USA: Arab language papers in the Middle East have prominently featured photos of the American soldier putting an American flag on the statue of Saddam Hussein, perhaps portraying this as a conquest (vs. liberation). U.S. media have not featured this photo (e.g., the "Washington Post" has a photo of an Iraqi kissing a U.S. soldier). Why? Also, why have U.S. media devoted so much time and space to details (snapshots, really) of small battles around the country, but almost nothing about the historical, political and cultural background of Iraq, about which Americans know so little?

Tom Rosenstiel: Two answers, I think. First, pictures and images tend to be selected if they are perceived to tell a story. The story is usually, but not always, one that we already have in mind. The pictures, in other words, illustrate some impression or sense that we already have from other sources.
Your other question, I think, is extremely important. Why is there so little of the deeper contextual coverage about the country and the region. First, the press is always better at covering news that breaks (events happening right now in front of us) than news that bends (process, trends, history, sociology, anthropology, economics, etc.) The latter takes more expertise, more in-depth reporting, more synthesis, more skill.

Chicago: Mr. Rosenstiel,

How do you explain the remarkable lack of coverage given to the atrocities inflicted by Iraqi military/paramilitary on Iraqi citizens during the past couple of weeks?

Despite all the embedded journalists and wandering freelance reporters, such coverage was scant compared to stories about Iraqi people and property hurt or destroyed by U.S. military action or errant U.S. bombs (stories which the Washington Post, among other media outlets, never hesitated to carry front and center during their coverage of the war).

We did expect to see loss of civilian lives during the war. However, I think many people and countries around the world really needed to witness the examples of the violence committed by Saddam's regime on its own people, especially since the outbreak of war.

Tom Rosenstiel: Interesting question. One reason is that American TV has different norms and issues of taste than other TV. It is more sanitized. That is only part of it, however. Another is the embedded reporters with troops may not be seeing these things, as those troops are fighting against Iraqi fighters. A third reason is that the unilateral reporters in Iraq were being escorted by minders who were not allowing them to see such things, to the extent that they have occurred and are visible. I do not believe that there is any conscious attempt by reporters to neglect or ignore such a story.
In fact, when it comes to injuries by American troops to Iraqi civilians, American media has covered that far less prominently than Arab and other media have. I don't believe they are ignoring them, but in that regard, we here are seeing somewhat a different picture of this war (and a more pro-American picture of this war) than is the rest of the world. That is, however much we may not like it, a fact and a political reality that America is going to have to contend with.

Chevy Chase, Md.: What do you think of the government's explanation of why it had to fire on the hotel which it knew was housing many journalists? Would you ever put yourself so much in harms way for a story?

Tom Rosenstiel: Given that the Pentagon went so far as to include Arab journalists in the embedded program because it wanted to get its story in the Arab media, I can't imagine there was a strategy to "fire" on journalists. The embedded program was designed, in part, to avoid killing journalists, which the military knew would be a PR disaster. I heard the vice president say as much, too, yesterday in speaking to newspaper editors at their annual convention.
On the other hand, I have been struck by the vagueness of the answers given by military briefers to the questions put to them about these incidents. Vice President Cheney was somewhat vague on the details as well, yesterday.

My guess is that they are somewhat unsure what happened exactly, and are trying to pin that down. We may never know for sure whether snipers were firing from the Palestine hotel or the Arab TV center in Baghdad. But I doubt that the Pentagon wanted this to happen.

This is not a very satisfactory answer. I guess it is conceivable that some angry soldiers acting on their own knew what they were doing, but there is no evidence of that, and given how well trained the American military is, that would not be my first suspicion.

Athens, Ga.: Which media is most influential in shaping the opinions and perceptions of the general public: TV, radio, traditional print, electronic print?

How concerned should we be about the consolidation of our media?

Tom Rosenstiel: In general, the media tell us what to think about, but not what to think. In other words, there is an agenda setting power--the media focuses on the war, so we think about the war. But my attitudes about it, my feeling and thoughts and political views, I bring to the table as a consumer. We do not take what the media tells us as gospel.

That said, TV images are more omnipresent today than they have ever been. We may read the newspaper or listen to the radio when we choose, a half hour a day or so, but we may see TV images constantly, walking through an airport, passing by a store, throughout the day in the office, as we dress in the morning and go to bed at night.

There is also research that shows we are somewhat less skeptical about visual images than words spoken or read. We process them in a different part of the brain, and tend to "believe" them more. It's why the cliche, seeing is believing, has some resonance.

Lincoln Park, D.C.: Why do you think that the U.S. media, including the best newspapers, has turned so jingoistic, whereas British quality media (BBC, Guardian, Independent etc.) have retained a more critical perspective, and keep e.g., publishing pictures of Iraqi civilian casualties and questioning the motivations of the war?

Tom Rosenstiel: I have spoken with English reporters who have said, candidly, that they feel more freedom to cover the war skeptically because the majority of the British public in polls say they are opposed. They have said they felt more constrained in other conflicts when the British were more heavily supportive. This is not an excuse. Journalists should be more independent of such popular winds. But it is, I think, part of the explanation for the difference in coverage. ANother is that the European public generally is more attuned to sentiment in other countries than Americans tend to be.

Salt Lake City, Utah: About ten days ago, reporters and military consultants hired by the press were very critical of the war plan adopted by Sec. Rumsfeld, General Franks, and the Bush administration. Predictions were made with some frequency that the plan was flawed, that the military planners would have to go back to the drawing board. Within hours of these critical predictions, coalition forces had crossed the "red zone" perimeter, and had captured the Baghdad airport. A short time later they were in the city. Will we be hearing these critics admit their errors now that the war plan looks like a stroke of genius? Should we hold our breath?

Tom Rosenstiel: I think this rush to judgment is more a function of the press dashing to one side of the boat and then to the other than it is a sign of any bias. A frankly more honest appraisal of the coverage, I think, would have to be that in the first chapter of the war, say day one and two, the press was gushing in its awe of the military dash toward Baghdad. Then came the sense of "stall" and the rush to judgment critical of the plan. Chapter three came about a week or so later as the military moved in and crushed the Iraqi military. Now, in chapter 4, the press is rushing to declare the war won, and the Pentagon is once again trying to slow the rush to judgment down. It's not over yet, even if the outcome is clear. Rush to judgment--often wrong but never in doubt--is the press' more serious and real bias.

Washington, D.C.: Why the light coverage of the potential and/or actual conflicts of Gen. Jay Garner? It seems the Pentagon is driving us right into a credibility problem by putting an obviously well-qualified but unfortunately conflicted man at the head of the reconstruction. (contacts with Likud party; direct and continuing involvement with U.S. military contractors).

Tom Rosenstiel: I think Garner's efforts and any conflicts will get more coverage in time than they will now. The press often doesn't look up and look ahead well enough.
Now, will it get the coverage it deserves. That will probably be in the eyes of the beholder, depending on how important one thinks those conflicts are.

Vienna, Va.: I need some help. My concern for the effect that the Arab media is having on their readers' opinions is getting greater and greater each day. We had all of one day of this war where the two, supposedly free, media agreed; yesterday, both Western and Arab media depicted similar images and stories. Today Al-Jazeera is back to their habit of inflaming hatred and divisiveness. I find myself wondering if I can get up and breathe in the morning without drawing hatred towards me simply because I'm an American. Come on! The Iraqis, people whom the Arab press purportedly love and believe in, have their first chance at freedom in a long while. But because it comes at the hand of the West there are "shock" and "tears" in the Arab world. A horrific dictator it seems, as long as he stands up to the West, is someone to support against us. Of course, when the Arabs have been fed a daily dose of horror and conspiracy theories this begins to be understandable.

But man, is it making me angry.

I realize that there are significant historic and cultural reasons for the resentment that exists towards the West. We now have the chance to watch events unfold, and see the coverage on "both sides". There is shock in the Arab world at the speed of Baghdad's fall because they have been continually lied to about this entire situation. American are not shocked -- we are generally thrilled that this will mean fewer lives (of ALL types) will be lost. The reactions of the Arab world is deeply disturbing to me, and I'm finding that I hold their media more and more accountable for it.

Am I missing something? Is the coverage we receive in the West really so one sided as the Al-Jazeeras would have us believe?

Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Tom Rosenstiel: This is an important question of the global media culture in which we live today. These differences--this media relativism or Rashoman--has always been there. But we are more aware of it than we have ever been, because we can see the images the Arab world sees through satellites in our homes, and carried on cable channels, as never before. The good news, I believe, is that in time this will lead to more world understanding. The basic strength of the first amendment--and democracy--is that through a greater diversity of viewpoints, we are more likely to know the truth. It may make us more angry. But eventually it will make us wiser. I don't know, however, when eventually comes. I hope it comes in my lifetime.

Re: "Winston Smith": A previous questioner referred to the book "'World in Chaos' by Harvard professor, Dr. Winston Smith." There is no such book listed in Amazon.com's directory, and no such professor in the Harvard directory. However, Winston Smith was the main character in George Orwell's "1984."

Tom Rosenstiel: Well, that shows the dangers of on-line chats and immediacy. Speed, as I said before, is the enemy of accuracy and reflection.

The Plains, Va.: How does your organization react to both the embedding of journalists in the Iraq war, and the deaths of those journalists during normal war operations? As an added question I would like to ask, what is your reaction to the recent events at the Palestine Hotel?

Tom Rosenstiel: As I said earlier, I think on balance the public is better served by having embedded reporters than without them. The program gives us as citizens 600 more sources of information than we would have had. While each of those points of view is limited, and trying to understand and process them is difficult, in time we will understand this war better than others. But, in real time, day to day, it makes following the war somewhat more confusing, and the potential that we are focusing on the wrong thing still exists.

Arlington, Va.: To what extent are journalists holding back information that would make the U.S. case for war, but would also compromise troops or national security? In other words, how informed are the public's decisions to support or oppose war? (I'm a cynic. I don't think I have yet to meet a person whose opinion is anything but speculation based on their review of media -- as opposed to first-hand knowledge).

Tom Rosenstiel: I don't think journalists are holding back information except that which they and the military believe would endanger mission security. It is not the job of the press, or the military, to make the case for war. The Bush Administration has that job, and they've had plenty of time to do it. If they haven't, or if they have, that is a political responsibility, not a military one--or a journalistic one.

Seattle, Wa.: Mr. Rosenstiel,

Your explanation of media bias as a result of desire to reflect, or at least avoid alienating, the public is very reasonable. However, there is a significant segment of the public which is deeply opposed to the war and very skeptical that the peace will be a just one, and another large slice that is highly conflicted and worried. Why is the media more interested in courting right wing diehards?

Tom Rosenstiel: I wouldn't put it as a matter of courting the right wing, as much as bending to a more generalized sense of public feeling. I would, however, agree that there are certain political critics out there, and some segment of the new Alternative right press, that make it a conscious strategy to work the referees, to argue that the press is part of some manifest liberal conspiracy, and I know that even some of the people who make this argument do it not so much out of a sense of outrage as a desire to put the press on the defensive.

That said, I do believe there is a problem of liberal bias--a problem of too many liberal reporters in the press and not enough conservative ones. But this is a far more subtle problem than the popular argument suggests. It comes it to play not so much on big stories like the war as when a new conservative policy ideas--say school vouchers--is introduced, and journalists tend to react reflexively. There is another issue. One bias of the press that is necessary and proper is skepticism, and questioning authority, particularly in a GOP Administration, may strike some people as liberal. The fact is the press questioned Clinton even more aggressively than it has Bush, for a variety of reasons. A lack of skepticism, for whatever reasons, is a failure of the press we will all regret over time.

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