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MEDIA - The Fog of Journalism MEDIA - The Fog of Journalism

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MEDIA - The Fog of Journalism

Is there too much war news? When the cruise missiles had just started flying and every shred of news seemed meaningful, the question would have seemed ridiculous. On a story this big, it goes without saying that information is good, and the more information the better. Right?

The most surprising media truth to emerge in the last week is that having 600-plus reporters cover a war from inside deployed military units, plus untold hundreds running around the region on their own tether, doesn't necessarily clear up the fog of war back home. It can actually make the story harder to follow.

If war is hell, wading through all this wartime journalism is fast becoming a kind of purgatory. Some days, the deeper you go into the war coverage, the less you know. On television, there's just too much news to absorb, from too many points of view, and no obvious way of sorting or ranking the offerings. If you stay with the energetic-but-shallow embed on MSNBC, you'll avoid that dullard anchoring over on CNN, but you might also be missing new footage on Fox, or the latest nugget of Rumsfeld-think from that crack Pentagon reporter on CBS-or was it ABC? Anyone who has tried to track this war knows the feeling. It all melts together into war mush, a mush laced with anxiety.

Whining about the excess of war news isn't the answer, either. As in peacetime, the trick is figuring out which news outlets, and news people, offer added value. Though we tend to think of this as a story that's unfolding entirely on TV, I'm finding a lot of added value in newspapers. The daily broadsheet is said to be an outdated medium, slow, staid, shockingly undynamic. And it's true that if you follow the war news closely on TV and the Internet, by the time the paper appears the next morning, a lot of the content feels stale and pointless.

But the great strength of the electronic media-their ability to deliver pictures and sound quickly, and to bounce from place to place as events demand-can also be their great weakness. Stay with any major news channel as it flits from Basra to Chamchamal to the deck of a carrier then back to the anchor desk stateside for a news summary and over to the map for a strategy lesson with the burly retired general, then off to some new combat footage from Baghdad ... and soon you've got the media equivalent of jet lag. You're bleary, unfocused, not really absorbing anything.

The best thing about a newspaper is that it's completely inert. It can't move on its own and won't take you anywhere you're not ready to go. You can skim the whole paper in 10 minutes or stare at a single page for an hour, lingering over an unusually good embed dispatch, say, or some deep-background White House story that requires major decoding. And when you've figured out what if anything that story did for you, then and only then do you move on.

Newspapers have another benefit: hierarchy. You can tell how important a newspaper story is-or at least how important the editors think it is-by which page it's on, where it's placed on that page, the width and length of the story, and the headline size. And that's all before you've read a word. Other media have their own hierarchical codes, but none are as precise and instantly intelligible as the newspaper's. In recent days, the simple, stodgy old newspaper format has taken on a new energy and sparkle, just for the way it organizes all the war-news chaos, lending every story context, definition, and a place in the larger order of news.

In Washington, the perennial battle between The Washington Post and The New York Times has suddenly become interesting again. The two papers are devoting enormous resources to the war, churning out enough stories to fill special war sections. Both are performing ably, but The Post's war coverage so far has had a clarity and verve that's been lacking in The Times.

There's also an emerging star in The Post, a reporter named Anthony Shadid who has been writing remarkable dispatches from Baghdad. On the morning of the first missile attack on Baghdad, he filed the most gripping, graceful account that I saw anywhere. At one point this week, he was inside the home of an Iraqi family that isn't thrilled with Saddam, but is also terrified of and angered by the U.S. invasion: "To this family, the assault is an insult. It is not Hussein under attack, but Iraq, they said. It is hard to gauge if this is a common sentiment, although it is one heard more often as the war progresses. `We complain about things, but complaining doesn't mean cooperating with foreign governments,' the father said. `When somebody comes to attack Iraq, we stand up for Iraq. That doesn't mean we love Saddam Hussein, but there are priorities.' "

Anecdotal stuff, not necessarily representative of the broader Iraqi populace, but powerfully told. With U.S. soldiers meeting unexpected resistance on the battlefield that very day, Shadid put flesh on what was then the story of the hour: the possibility that coalition forces might not be as welcome as expected.

After reading that story, I went back to the television, and the fog descended again. It didn't lift until the next morning, when the newspapers arrived.

William Powers National Journal

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