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WAR WITH IRAQ / COVERING THE CONFLICT

Media and Government Make Uneasy Bedfellows

Though the two sides have different priorities, journalism critics fear a propaganda machine.

March 26, 2003|Josh Getlin and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — The rumors show no signs of going away: Saddam Hussein was killed the first night of the war. Or he was badly injured. Or he escaped and is hiding somewhere in Baghdad.

If there is a thread linking these stories, it is that the media have reported them enthusiastically and uncritically, with no independent verification. They are speculative, based on Pentagon sources, and while their news value is obvious, they also help the Bush administration reinforce the message of an Iraqi regime in disarray.

On one level, news coverage of the Iraq war has produced a flood of vivid, firsthand stories from more than 500 reporters traveling with U.S. forces. Yet these dispatches provide only fragmentary glimpses of a vast military effort. To convey the bigger picture, journalists depend on military and government officials -- and the two sides don't always have the same priorities.

"The potential for the media to be the vehicle for disinformation and propaganda in this war is great, as it is in any conflict," says Stephen Hess, a media and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. "We don't expect the U.S. government to lie, yet we also know that they will put out information during a time of war to confuse the enemy and further their own aims. The question is, can these two be reconciled?"

Some believe that the media must always assume the worst and be vigilant about the source of wartime stories.

"A lot of editors have been concerned this past week over the difference between spin and difficult reporting," said David Yarnold, editor and senior vice president of the San Jose Mercury News. "It's hard to know what the facts are with the sheer volume of news we have pouring in from the battlefield every day."

The media's war coverage has already raised a red flag with some critics. Stories about the alleged discovery of an Iraqi chemical weapons factory in Najaf captivated the world media Sunday, for example, but were quietly contradicted by Pentagon sources Monday. The story was first reported by a Jerusalem Post journalist traveling with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division who said that troops had captured "the first Iraqi installation that appears to have produced chemical weapons."

Within hours, the story had spread worldwide and was given prominent coverage on Fox News, among several U.S. television networks. Doubts grew about the accuracy of the report, however, and U.S. officials said Monday that absolutely no chemicals were found at the site, which had been abandoned long ago by the Iraqis.

"We got some information from our sources and it seemed to check out fine," said Bill Shine, network executive producer for Fox News Channel, discussing his network's active coverage of the story. But after about six hours, he said, the network had to pull back from the story.

"This is a war, information is coming on fast and furious, and we're doing the best job we possibly can, checking things out," Shine said, adding that the cable news network is never going to be "mistake-free."

Some media outlets treated the chemical weapons story more cautiously, such as National Public Radio. Bruce Drake, NPR's vice president for news and information, put the story on the air only after Associated Press reported that a "chemical plant" had been found and was being investigated.

"Was that disinformation [given by officials] to some reporter, or was that a reporter's mistake?" he asked. "It could have been that a reporter heard they'd found a chemical plant ... and, since we're all primed for this, assumed that it was chemical weapons."

Many journalists and their editors believe they have a good chance of filtering out disinformation in this campaign, mainly because of the number of reporters traveling with military units. CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour acknowledged that "in every war, on every side, there is psychological warfare, propaganda. But I don't believe at the moment that we're being necessarily lied to or overtly manipulated."

Yet others say the media -- especially cable TV networks -- have filled up hours of air time with too much speculation and government spin, none of which is subjected to rigorous standards of reporting.

"I'm astonished at the lack of skepticism in the media so far, especially on television, because we've heard a lot of things reported that may not be true," said Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "By now, you'd think reporters would have learned their lesson, based on what happened in the 1991 Gulf War."

Back then, most reporters were kept hundreds of miles from the front lines and depended on official briefings. Several stories that dominated the coverage -- such as the accuracy of U.S. Patriot missiles -- were later found to be inaccurate. Media organizations vowed that they would not fall prey to the lure of "official" speculation again.

Some observers believe the media are doing a much better job of separating fact from fiction in this war -- at least so far.

"I don't smell nearly as much of that [official disinformation] this time," said Sydney Schanberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Vietnam War correspondent.

"And people need to remember that, in combat, virtually half of what you hear, at least in the early going, is bound to be wrong. Even military leaders don't know all the facts. That's why we call it the fog of war."

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