TCS Daily


Losing the War on the Air

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Despite all their vaunted technology, and months of prewar planning, they've looked disorganized and unimpressive since the actual fighting started. They seem bewildered, behind the curve, and slow to respond to unanticipated developments, too smug about their superior performance in Gulf War I to take the challenges of this one seriously. It's beginning to look as if they've been sucker-punched by an old foe who's thought several moves ahead.

Yes, the television networks have done a thoroughly unimpressive job of covering the war. And it's surprising. After all, cable television covered the first Gulf War pretty well, and now they have the benefits of drastically advanced communications technology, allowing embedded reporters to send back reports from wherever they are, live and almost unedited.

And that's a lot of the problem. The "embedding" program has been a stroke of genius for the Pentagon, but it's been a disaster for the networks. The embedded journalists have come to identify with their units, and have formed a bond with American soldiers and Marines that will likely last a lifetime and fundamentally alter the character of the press in terms of its relations with the military. And - because they're embedded with units and traveling with ordinary soldiers - they're sending back a soldier's-eye-view of the war, which the networks feel they have to air because of its immediacy, and because they've invested so much in the technology that makes such reportage possible.

The trouble with a soldier's-eye-view, of course, is that soldiers never know much about what's actually going on - just their small piece of the battlefield. This means that the networks' reports have been a thousand points of disorganized light, the equivalent of the random pixels of television "snow." And like television "snow," the effect can be hypnotic, but little information is actually conveyed.

This is fine with the Pentagon, which isn't especially interested in helping the world get a big-picture view of its operations just now anyway. Oh, it has some short-term PR costs, as inexperienced journalists confuse a minor firefight with an important military engagement, but those costs are minor compared with the disinformational benefits, and the long-term effect on the press corps itself.

So what could the networks do to address this problem? Well, they might try organizing those points of light. This is where Steven Levy's comparison between webloggers and embedded reporters breaks down. The embedded reporters' first-person accounts are bloglike in that they're first-person, but unlike blogs they're not a part of a conversation: embedded reporters don't watch each other's reports and try to knit them together into a meaningful Big Picture view. Bloggers do (though to be fair, many have become frustrated at the difficulty of getting a clear picture of the war to date). Embedded reporting is still a lecture, not a conversation, and it doesn't lend itself to the integration of information. Compare most of the Big Media reporting to this post on Tim Blair's weblog to see what I mean.

Unfortunately, Big Media outfits are shutting down reporters' weblogs, not encouraging them. CNN Correspondent Kevin Sites' weblog was stopped at CNN's orders, even though he was providing all sorts of cool stuff including photos and audio posts, CNN apparently saw this as a distraction to Sites, when they should have seen it as a way of getting more work out of him for free: if they had linked to his blog from CNN.com, and perhaps even broadcast some of the audio and photos, it would have improved coverage that, so far, isn't impressing very many people.

Jeff Jarvis writes that competition will eventually change the attitudes of Big Media folks toward journalists' blogs, and that that will be a good thing. He's probably right, but they've already lost the initiative with this war. Too bad.
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