Network Anchor-Geezers In an Info-Sandstorm Reassert Importance

It’s an avalanche from the front.

Every day, television packages and ships home hundreds of stories from hundreds of war correspondents in Iraq. There are reports of American heroes. There are reports of American casualties. There are angry Iraqis. There are happy Iraqis. The other day on CNN, there was a Kurdish child named…Dick Cheney.

With each new report comes a new, contradictory theory. We are conquering. We are not conquering. We are not conquering as fast was we’d expected. The troops are confident. The troops are nervous.

It is Ernie Pyle meets Franz Kafka. “What you are seeing is not the war in Iraq,” Donald Rumsfeld said. “What you are seeing is slices of the war in Iraq.”

The spectacle was thrilling and clear at first. Those videophoned images of tanks rolling through the desert were stunning – Nintendo of Arabia. Talking to a plucky “embedded” correspondent in the field named Ted Koppel as the Third Infantry Division rumbled by in the background, ABC’s Peter Jennings called the technology “astonishing.”

“Here is an ABC News crew able to pull up to the very edge of the Iraq-Kuwait frontier, set up house momentarily, point to the skies and broadcast live in the impeccable quality as if they were down the street,” Mr. Jennings said.

It was only natural that with this astonishing technology came an unvarnished kind of exuberance. Here was our military – live, just like Jimmy Kimmel – and it appeared not only formidable, but unmolested. Mr. Koppel would later go up in a high-ranking officer’s helicopter and the steel phalanxes he and his camera man saw below looked invincible. There were pictures of surrendering Iraqis, too. People started getting carried away. Shortly after talking to his network’s embed, Fox News’ Shepard Smith hailed the forthcoming “liberation of Kuwait.” He said it again, before finally correcting himself.

From the start, it should have been clear that these reports didn’t compose a total view. They were fragments – as limited as the cameras perched on Baghdad rooftops. Some correspondents in the field acknowledged them as such. Networks tried their best to buttress the embed reporting with overviews from correspondents in central command and Pentagon briefings and stylish computer maps, but the early, happy days of this war were, indeed, a composition of “slices”: from tanks, from encampments, from hotel rooms in the Iraqi capital.

By the weekend it started to change fast and furiously. Those unopposed regiments trucking through Southern Iraq were suddenly opposed. There were reports of friendly-fire casualties. There were reports of resistant Iraqis. There were reports of enemy-fire casualties, and POWs. There was television of that, too – counter-media, and the fact that American networks held off from showing it only made it more disconcerting and effective.

You could truly sense the momentum shift on Sunday, Mar. 23 as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave his first interview since the conflict began, on NBC’s Meet the Press . Moderator Tim Russert hit Mr. Rumsfeld with some journalistic friendly fire. He asked about missing soldiers. He asked about a missing aircraft.

Then Mr. Russert showed the Defense Secretary some photographs taken by a journalist the night before, after the U.S. military arrested one of its own in connection with an attack on a Kuwaiti base. The images were disturbing: a wounded soldier being carried away; a U.S. soldier in custody.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Mr. Rumsfeld said to Mr. Russert, in the way a school teacher might talk to a prodigious student trying to show him up in class. “Here we have permitted press people to be embedded, as they say, with the overwhelming majority of our elements – air, land and sea. And so what happens is we see an image like that.”

“An image like that,” of course, was nothing more or less than an accurate piece of journalism from a legitimate news organization Mr. Rumsfeld himself permitted to be there. But after several days of feel-good war coverage – film of tanks charging through the southern Iraqi desert like Sunday commuters; surrendering troops; aerial “shock and awe” – and loads of praise of the Pentagon for its openness – the raw image felt like a shock to the system. Up until then, this unprecedented synthesis of media and military had been going so swimmingly – the television roll-out of the decade.

Now, suddenly, it wasn’t. Almost immediately there was a forced transfer of the story from the technological wonders to the human. The green night-vision wonder of unmolested troops was replaced by film of burned-out tankers and POW families.

“The idea that we are seeing a war happening in front of our eyes, either live or almost live, is extraordinary,” said CBS News senior vice president of news coverage Marcy McGinnis. “And the story that we are able to do it was a story for the first day or two.

“Now the story is the story,” Ms. McGinnis said. “The story is the war.”

Still, how to process? Television and its ingrained hyper-reaction to tragedy seemed ill-equipped to give the cold perspective to collateral damage that the Pentagon wanted. Mr. Rumsfeld wasn’t foolish; he never promised a bloodless war. President Bush predicted U.S. casualties, and there were U.S. casualties. Any questioning of casualty reports was met by administration and U.S. officials with a kind of incredulous, we-told-you-so firmness.

“Oh my goodness, it’s just – a war is a war,” Mr. Rumsfeld told Mr. Russert when he asked about predictions the war would be a “cakewalk.” “It’s a brutal thing.”

But if they were having a hard time in Washington, it was even harder to find context in the field. Embeds may have been the greatest gizmo of this war, and the brave producers of exceptional coverage, but they were limited, as R.W. Apple wrote in the March 24 Times .

“Any large-scale conflict can be viewed through several lenses, with subtly different results,” Mr. Apple wrote. “The correspondent moving forward with a company or a battalion of combat troops will usually get the most vivid picture, with the most telling detail, but it may show little about the overall flux of the battle. Often he or she, lacking the broad view, will be too optimistic or pessimistic.”

There was only so much the men and women out there covering Iraq could offer. And that was why it’s strange but not surprising that amid the fog of this 21st-century television war, one fading 20th-century television asset reemerged as vital: the anchor. Every night, there they are, the jaw-jaw anachronisms – Tom Brokaw, Mr. Jennings, even Dan Rather, though he’s occasionally been handcuffed by NCAA basketball – lending old-fashioned translation to all that futuristic war-war.

We’ve written them off again and again as fossils. In the hyper-democratized, digital-video, real-time, blogosphere news era, the anchor is presumed to be costly and unnecessary, multimillion-dollar baubles.

But they may wind up being the embeds we turn to most. Those brave field correspondents, night-vision videophones and computer-imaging maps are dazzling, but what we’ve learned rather quickly in this war is that we still need someone safely home behind a desk, listening to everyone on the hunt, trying to explain what it all means.