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The 'gee whiz' war

Amid criticism that technology is turning front-line action into sound bites, networks are trying to give greater context.

March 28, 2003|Brian Lowry and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

In just one memorable image from the war in Iraq, there was stately anchor Ted Koppel -- whipped by blowing sand and clad in fatigues and dark glasses -- as he traveled with an Army unit as it marched toward Baghdad. Yet for all the technical wizardry responsible for that and other unprecedented front-line dispatches, ABC's "Nightline" has been equally notable for a segment that seeks to put "the fog of war" into focus, dubbed "The Big Picture."

Technological advances, from videophones to night-vision photography, initially defined and perhaps drove TV's coverage of this 21st century war -- whether it was CNN's Aaron Brown's marveling at a live firefight in Umm al Qasr or NBC's David Bloom's shouting over an M-88 tank recovery vehicle as the 3rd Infantry rumbled through the Iraqi desert, an exchange "Today" host Matt Lauer called "astonishing."

A little over a week into the conflict, however, some wonder whether those images eclipsed a larger picture of what's transpiring. And even some TV journalists have acknowledged that early reports were often more interesting than illuminating -- providing what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned were merely "slices of the war." Already, TV news organizations, stung by some initial missteps, are fine-tuning coverage.

"We've never had a war like this, and we got inundated by close-ups," said "Nightline" executive producer Tom Bettag, explaining why the show introduced "The Big Picture," a detailed overview of the day's events. "Fairly soon, we said somebody's got to take a step back and give a little perspective."

While bowing in part to financial imperatives -- with hard-to-postpone events like the NCAA basketball tournament and Academy Awards to consider -- the major networks quickly pulled back to more restrained, sporadic war coverage, generally devoting an hour to the conflict in prime time.

After around-the-clock reports for several days, the all-news cable networks have also brought back such talk programs as Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" and MSNBC's "Hardball" and are once again running ads.

Thus far, the media have generally received high marks from the public. A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that two-fifths labeled the coverage "excellent" and nearly 80% respondents rated it favorably. Almost 90% said TV was their primary news source.

CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, traveling with British troops in the Basra region, says "embedding" and technology have generated enormous amounts of valuable information but added that she would like to see CNN doing more in-depth pieces.

"While the live [coverage] is exciting, it can't give you everything in a concise and broader context way," she said, by phone from Iraq. "Our network has gotten away from taped packages; they think 'live' brings more spontaneity. 'Keep it moving, keep it moving' is what they tell us."

CNN, which has been promoting its coverage as being closer to the action and "all day," has added brief wrap-ups of the day's events, but executive producer Marylynn Ryan, overseeing nine hours of war coverage daily, says live material from embedded reporters "is working for us.... We're out there breaking some of the news."

Indeed, contextual reporting is hard-pressed to compete with the drama of material Amanpour's colleague Walter Rodgers is providing from his position in the Iraqi desert.

On Thursday morning, Rodgers abruptly cut off a report when troops feared they might be under fire, as the camera panned the sky. The day before, he told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer that sources were telling him a 1,000-vehicle convoy of Iraqi elite troops was heading south from Baghdad at a rapid clip -- a report that later proved to be dramatically overstated -- and "we will probably come under attack some time this evening."

TV journalists were agog at first about the technological breakthroughs. CNN anchor Bill Hemmer at one point called the satellite-fed pictures "the star of this war," and NBC promoted exclusive technology allowing the network to "immediately send crisp, real-time moving pictures" directly via satellite.

Yet such innovations have been both a blessing and a curse, some critics say. Although the all-news cable channels have experienced significant ratings gains since the war began, these critics contend that the axiom "more is less" applies, with the major networks actually providing more insightful coverage.

"By breaking and thinking about it, they're doing it better," said John J. Schulz, a professor of international communication at Boston University.

Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, noted that the general rule has been to offer more tightly edited packages during the evening news and newsmagazines, with extensive live reports on cable or within morning programs such as the "Today" show.

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