Politics & Policy

The War On The Tube

Watching Operation Iraqi Freedom with Lee Edwards.

An NRO Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and adjunct professor of politics, the Catholic University of America. Edwards is the author of number of books, including Mediapolitik: How the Mass Media Have Transformed World Politics. He spoke to NRO over e-mail on Friday afternoon about TV media coverage in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You’re a professor, what grade would you give the media so far for Operation Iraqi Freedom coverage?

Lee Edwards: The media are mass, so one has to be careful about lumping them all together. The print media deserve a solid B so far, the electronic media a gentleman’s C because they are so fearful of taxing the viewer’s attention span beyond 60 seconds. I saw one channel cut off an interesting and informative interview practically in mid-sentence to bring us some “news-breaking” information — their reporter had just entered Iraq and had some pictures of the Iraqi desert he just had to share with us.

Lopez: “Embedment”: Good idea or no?

Edwards: “Embedment” is nothing new. Reporters like Ernie Pyle lived with American troops for weeks in World War II. Reporters were unrestricted in Vietnam and saw action up close. The difference is one of scale — and of the instant transmission of news to the viewer. The reporter must act as his own editor and that places an extra burden on him as he decides what to transmit.

Lopez: As we speak, we haven’t seen any CENTCOM press briefings yet. Wise move if there’s not much to tell? Or would it be better to have fewer reporters in tanks and more press briefings?

Edwards: You need briefings to put things into perspective. What does a picture of one oil well burning tell you? How many pictures of the desert streaking by do we need? One reporter cannot tell the story of a complex military operation, nor can an anchor sitting in New York City.

Lopez: It’s nonstop war on the cable channels. Should they be taking some time to cover other stories? Should they be running commercials?

Edwards: By their nonstop coverage, the cable channels are saying that the Iraqi war is the only story worth covering. They are setting the agenda for their viewers, but obviously many other important things are happening. War may be good for ratings but nonstop coverage of it is not good for the public psyche. As to commercials no one expects the channels to go commercial-free for more than a couple of days. (But isn’t it a welcome change!)

Lopez: This is obviously unprecedented war coverage — the access, etc. Do you think we’re better for it when you compare it to 20th-century wars?

Edwards: I would rather have too much rather than too little war coverage. The viewer can always switch channels to the History Channel of QVC or even turn off the TV and read a book. I do believe the public has a right to know the good and the bad about their government, including its conduct of a war.

Lopez: Do you think the Pentagon will rethink this open-door policy to journalists?

Edwards: It’s too early to tell. If the war is short and successful, the Pentagon will benefit. If the war is prolonged and problematic, the Pentagon will suffer, as it should.

Lopez: Conservatives have long noted bias in reporting — do you see less of it in this war?

Edwards: I do not see any appreciable political bias in the reporting so far although it is still early days. The specter of 9/11 is still with us and the media. What I have noted is a tendency to hype the pictures and the reporting of the “embedded” journalist when much of it has been no more than workmanlike and certainly not deserving of bells and whistles. But you see the networks have invested millions of dollars in “embedded” journalism and want to get their money’s worth out of it.

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