While We Were Sleeping

112805 article ratner While We Were SleepingOn the morning of Aug. 3, 1965, a 33-year-old CBS correspondent named Morley Safer, in fatigues and with a bulky recording contraption on his hip, stood in Cam Ne, Vietnam, before a backdrop of burning thatch-roof huts. He clutched a battered metal microphone. Moments earlier, a unit of baby-faced American soldiers had set the huts on fire. Young women ran wailing, cradling babies; an elderly man hobbled toward Mr. Safer, pleading in Vietnamese.

“This is what the war in Vietnam is all about, the old and the very young,” Mr. Safer said, turning to face the camera.

Forty years later, the United States is in a desert war, transmitted instantly by satellite and broadband. There are no boundaries on our technical capabilities to cover events.

But there are other limits—commercial, political, editorial. And they have kept the war in Iraq marginal in the American media, from soon after the initial invasion in the spring of 2003 till last week, when Representative John Murtha hurled it back into the spotlight.

While Vietnam is remembered as the television war, Iraq has been the television-crawl war: a scrolling feed of bad-news bits, pushed to the margins by Brad and Jen, Robert Blake, Jacko and two and a half years of other anesthetizing fare. Americans could go days on end without engaging with the war, on TV or in print.

“There’s a dearth of seriousness in the coverage of news,” said veteran war correspondent Christiane Amanpour, “at a time when, in my view, it couldn’t be more serious.”

• Dead troops are invisible. The Bush administration’s ban on capturing flag-draped coffins is echoed in the press’ overall treatment of American war dead. A May 2005 survey by the Los Angeles Times found that over a six-month span, a set of leading United States newspapers and magazines ran “almost no pictures” of Americans killed in action, and they ran only 44 photos of wounded Westerners.

• Average monthly war coverage on the ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts, combined, has been cut in half—from 388 minutes in 2003, to 274 in 2004, to 166 in 2005.

• Major newspapers have cut back on the size of their Baghdad bureaus, with some closing them or allowing them to go unstaffed for stretches.

• Government regulation has spread over the battlefield, limiting mobility and access. Where Vietnam correspondents could hop a chopper to combat zones at will, Iraq reporters need to sign eight-page sheaves of rules and are pinned to single units. Health-care privacy law is invoked to keep reporters away from the wounded.

• Corporate security restrictions likewise stifle reporting. At CNN, reporters need clearance from the bureau chief to leave the network compound; similar rules apply at other networks.

The danger “really impedes our ability to get around the country to talk to average Iraqis, to get a really good sense of what’s going on on a daily basis,” said Paul Slavin, a senior vice president for ABC.

Many reporters have done heroic work in Iraq despite the obstacles. But it has failed to add up. There have been no moments like Cam Ne—in which Mr. Safer, a single Marianas-deep furrow between his brows, summarized the news and, in the process, signaled the birth of a bracing and immediate breed of war coverage: “The day’s operation burned down 150 homes, wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one Marine, and netted … four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English.”

That nightly jungle drama, bringing a futile war to American televisions, has no counterpart in today’s coverage.

“The problem is that people aren’t publishing the work,” said Stefan Zaklin of the European Pressphoto agency. Mr. Zaklin recalled taking a picture of a fallen U.S. Army captain during the November 2004 assault on Falluja. The soldiers, he said, “were O.K. with me taking that picture,” and it ran in Paris Match, the Bangkok Post, and on page 1 of Germany’s Bild-Zeitung, Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper. Its only exposure in the U.S., he said, was a two-hour spin on MSNBC.

“The U.S. press is even worse in terms of not publishing the complete story,” Mr. Zaklin said, “and I think it’s because of the perceived taste or tolerance levels of their audience.”

“Corporations don’t want and don’t feel particularly a responsibility to aggressively rock the boat,” said Michael Kirk, a documentary producer working for PBS’s Frontline. “I think that’s certainly true. Why would Viacom want to rock the boat?”

At the networks, Mr. Kirk said, “the imperative is not to let somebody spend the time and the energy and the resources to really know it.

“We just did this huge film about torture,” Mr. Kirk continued. “We called all the people who worked at Abu Ghraib—the military police, military-intelligence people, officers. Many, many of them said no reporter had ever contacted them. This was a public list; this was not a secret list. It’s basic journalism—I call one guy and say, ‘Who else can I talk to?’ He gives me two more names. And that person gives me four more names. They also said they had not been contacted by anyone in journalism.”

So the war, in its bloodless version, fails to disturb the national media mind.

“I don’t think the networks have been able to create a narrative or mythology for the war,” said Ron Simon, the television curator for the Museum of Television and Radio. “For a narrative, you have to have an answer to Norman Mailer’s famous question, ‘Why are we here?’ Two years later, they’re still struggling to ask that question.”

Without that overarching narrative, news organizations are left to report inconclusive results under dangerous and unhelpful conditions. “I have to say, from where I sit—and this is from being on the ground—it’s really hard to do much more than figure out what the narrative over the past 24 hours was,” said New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, on the phone from the paper’s Baghdad bureau.

Thus, in an entertainment-saturated media business, the Iraq feed has faded to an unattractive option—an option that even tends to be, with its distant and indistinct and repetitive strife, boring.

“News is news,” said John Paxson, CBS’s London bureau chief, who provides Iraq coverage to the network’s news programs. “A certain level of violence in Iraq, if it stays at that level for a period of weeks or months, it isn’t news. If it spikes upward, it’s news, and the amount of coverage on the air goes up.”

Asked if CBS is satisfying the American audience’s appetite for news from Iraq, he said, “I don’t know, because I’m not a consumer. I don’t watch American TV.”

The American news consumer is seeing far less of the war on television than Vietnam-era viewers did. In 1972, Ernest W. Lefever, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and senior fellow at the Ethics and public Policy Center, tabulated the CBS Evening News’ coverage of the Vietnam War, for a book meant to demonstrate that the network was excessively hostile to the Nixon administration. Mr. Lefever tallied 1,092 minutes of war coverage on the network that year, an average of 91 minutes a month.

Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who tracks broadcast network news, reports that ABC, NBC and CBS combined have averaged 166 minutes a month on Iraq this year—which works out, per network, to roughly 55 minutes a month.

In 2003, after the invasion, media companies were warned not to feed the American news consumer too much material on the downside of war. The media-consulting firm Frank Magid Associates advised broadcast outlets that its survey results suggested that viewers had very little appetite for stories about casualties, prisoners of war and anti-war protests.

“There’s this kind of general, industry-wide view that Americans don’t like anything tough, don’t like anything complicated, don’t give a shit, don’t know how to spell the country much less care what’s going on there,” Ms. Amanpour said. “I find that a very patronizing attitude.”

Since the early days of round-the-clock shock and awe, as the war news has grown more ambiguous and dispiriting, Iraq’s share of broadcast time has diminished. According to Mr. Tyndall’s figures, coverage of combat in Iraq on the three top networks dropped from 133 minutes a month in 2003 to 113 minutes in 2004, then to 70 minutes in 2005.

“At the time, this looked like it was gonna have a happy ending,” Mr. Tyndall said. “There was the drama of the drive to Baghdad. The networks had time to plan for the invasion, to allocate all the resources, to get all the embeds organized. It was orchestrated as a spectacle.”

It’s not only combat that’s lost its share of TV time as the post-invasion era drags on. When Iraq’s interim government was formed in June 2004, the top three broadcast networks devoted 139 minutes that week to coverage, according to Mr. Tyndall. During the week of the January 2005 Constitutional Assembly elections, the networks spent 146 minutes, as Iraqis happily gathered around cameras waving their purple-tipped fingers.

But last month’s constitutional referendum got only 36 minutes of air time in the week it happened, Mr. Tyndall reported.

Reporters are still working the war zone, if not in the same waves as during the initial invasion. The broadcast networks and CNN are spending millions of dollars on Iraq newsgathering operations each year, and executives from the networks said that the financial commitment hasn’t dropped off.

“These are now fixed costs,” said Chris Cramer, the managing director of CNN International, who oversees Iraq coverage for the network. “They’re the price of doing business there, if you want to run a meaningful operation. We’re now spending several millions of dollars in security alone, and that’s before we get to staffing costs and accommodations.”

Print outlets, meanwhile, have gradually reduced their presence and expenses—with some withdrawing their foreign correspondents altogether. The Boston Globe no longer keeps a full-time staff journalist in Iraq; an Iraqi stringer maintains its offices in the Al Hamra hotel. Several weeks can pass between visits by Globe correspondents, said James Smith, the paper’s foreign editor.

“All bureaus are constricting to a degree,” said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post who was the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief from April 2003 to August 2004. In the early days, he said, The Post maintained four or five permanent reporters, with three or four additional reporters rotating through at any given time. Now, the number of permanent reporters is down to two, with two or three more dropping in.

All of the American media have come to rely more and more on Iraqi staff. Of the roughly 40 people in CNN’s Baghdad bureau, about 30 are Iraqis. ABC has 30 Iraqi staffers in a bureau of 55; CBS has about two dozen in a similarly sized bureau. Approximately half of Reuters’ 60-person crew is either Arab or Iraqi. Of the 11 Associated Press journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography earlier this year, five were Iraqi photographers.

The increased role of Iraqi staff comes as reporters are less able to move freely about the country. The Iraq war has become the deadliest conflict for journalists in well over half a century. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 reporters and 22 media-support workers (such as translators and drivers) have already been killed covering the conflict.

“I do believe that our human-interest storytelling has been hurt by the fact that we are not free to roam the neighborhoods and spend as much time as we would want to with the average Iraqi family or businessperson or child,” said David Verdi, the vice president of world newsgathering for NBC News. “We don’t freely go to the schools and the hospitals and the mosques because of the safety issues. That part of the storytelling has been hurt.”

In Vietnam, only 66 reporters were killed in 20 years of warfare. Both sides tended to respect the neutrality of the press, and the Viet Cong would go so far as to court reporters, said veteran correspondent Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam coverage and is now writing a book about Saddam’s last years before the invasion. (Mr. Arnett was fired from NBC in 2003 after saying on Iraqi television that the American war plan had “failed.”)

Back then, “you had the impression that the Western media was not specifically targeted,” Mr. Arnett recalled.

Now, Mr. Arnett said, when he goes out, he often hides under a blanket in the back seat of a car.

For some reporters, leaving their security-patrolled, double-barricaded hotels requires permission from their employers. Last year, CNN instituted a rule limiting its Baghdad staff to correspondents and producers who have already reported from the area. When they want to leave CNN’s compound, they must get permission from the bureau chief.

Reporting teams from the three broadcast networks must also get clearance and must be accompanied by a security detail. “There is not a movement that we take outside of our hotel that is not carefully planned,” said NBC’s Mr. Verdi.

The Iraqis who have taken up the most dangerous legwork are not safe either. Five Iraqi journalists are currently being held without charges by U.S. and Iraqi government troops. Since April 2003, between 10 and 13 have been killed by American gunfire.

“It really comes from all sides,” said Reuters global managing editor David Schlesinger, who has lost three Iraqi reporters to U.S. gunfire and three more to detention facilities. “Certainly there’s a huge risk from insurgents, either to be hurt or killed accidentally … but unfortunately, there’s also been an issue with U.S. troops.”

And agoraphobic reporting, unavoidable though it is, means that the war is less compelling for readers and viewers back home.

“I think certainly you could get out in the jungles in Vietnam and prowl around and show the landscape,” said NBC correspondent George Lewis, who began his career in 1970 as a 27-year-old Vietnam correspondent. “Reporters today don’t have that freedom to roam. That makes it less visually compelling, perhaps.”

The insurgents aren’t the only ones behind the demise of the roving Vietnam-style reporter. The military, which at first reacted to the Vietnam experience by stonewalling the press, eventually discovered how to incorporate roving into the official agenda, through the embedding process.

Much was written at the outset of the invasion about the perils of embedding: how it could breed over-reliance on the official message, how it could lull reporters into uncritical camaraderie with the troops, how it could force reporters to trade accuracy for access.

A number of reporters now downplay some of those theoretical concerns. But some conceded that embedding does impede reporting.

“There’s commanders out there who, if you do an embed and they see your coverage or a particular story is too critical, they won’t invite you back for an embed,” said Ellen Knickmeyer, The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief. “There’s parts of the country you won’t be able to go to. There’s a lot of good commanders out in the field, but sometimes their view of how you should be reporting doesn’t always get with how we’re used to covering things.”

“The military hasn’t stopped us,” said Alan Chin, a freelance photojournalist who covered the invasion in 2003, then returned for three months this past spring. “But they have made it hard at times.”

And as the war has devolved into a shapeless battle with insurgent forces, the role of embedment has shifted. It’s not an ethical calculation anymore, but a practical one.

“If you’re a [Western] print reporter,” Mr. Chandrasekaran said, “you’re pretty much confined to Baghdad. And if you want to go anywhere else, you basically have to be embedded.”

This also keeps the press working within an official, bureaucratic context. Jon Alpert, a filmmaker working on a documentary for HBO about military medicine, said that the MedEvac unit he embedded with for the project was surprisingly accommodating. But when injured troops reached the field hospital, officials invoked the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the same privacy law that has come to thwart stateside reporters.

“When we were in the hospital,” Mr. Alpert said, “I had to have a public-affairs officer with me all the time. Because it was a hospital, they were applying the HIPAA laws.”

The combination of structured access to U.S. forces and open hostility from insurgents has left reporters with lopsided sources. “Who are the insurgents?” said freelance photojournalist Kael Alford, who covered the invasion and the first three months of the occupation. “Who are these people and why are they fighting? That’s a really valuable perspective …. It’s the story we have all been trying to do all along, and very few journalists have been able to get it.”

Another advantage that Vietnam reporters have is that their performance already belongs to history. Through the early part of that war, voices like Mr. Safer’s were in the minority, as overall coverage echoed the tales of smashing success coming from the Pentagon’s Saigon press bureau. Hindsight has a way of seeing highlights, not the years and months of ineffectual reporting that may have surrounded those moments.

Still, those moments were there—as when Walter Cronkite addressed his CBS audience at the end of his Feb. 27, 1968, broadcast. An anti-war movement was gaining strength and volume at home, and the North Vietnamese had swept into the streets of Saigon with the shocking Tet offensive. Mr. Cronkite himself was just home from a trip to Vietnam.

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion,” Mr. Cronkite said. “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

The declaration shook the press and the nation. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” President Lyndon Johnson told his aides, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

The current President has long since made it clear that he doesn’t care what the media have to say. Even if he did, there is no Walter Cronkite to say it.

On Monday, ABC announced that it will send an anchor to Baghdad: former chief White House correspondent Terry Moran, one of three rookie anchors replacing Ted Koppel on Nightline.

“The press is going through a very difficult time,” said Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam, “because the technology is changing under our feet …. You go from three or four channels to cable and the fragmentation of the audience. So that has tended to change the dynamic. First print is in decline, then the networks are in decline. The networks are utterly corporatized, not interested in news in the way the networks in the 60’s still cared …. Now you have these giant corporations that don’t really care that much about news. It is a tiny tail on a very large dog.”

If the public mood about the war is turning, it is turning less on the work of the press and more on the outrage of Mr. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat and combat veteran who called for the troops to be withdrawn as soon as practicable. The Bush administration, which never hesitates to lash back at critical stories in the media, was left praising Mr. Murtha’s credentials while trying to counter his complaint.

“I think this is a very important increment,” said Mr. Halberstam. “Murtha is a guy who is really speaking for the military. So if you lose someone like Murtha, that may be the equivalent, in this new kind of war, of 500,000 people outside the Pentagon.”

While Mr. Murtha is bidding to write history, what has the press been doing?

New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns said, “Considering the impediments that there are here to travel and access … the American media in Iraq has done a pretty damned good job.”

But Mr. Burns acknowledged that he worries how posterity will judge his and his colleagues’ work.

“I spend some time, as one who has some responsibility for shaping our coverage here, asking myself what are they going to be saying in the journalism classes of 2025, 2030, about the New York Times coverage here, against whatever the outcome is? … Were we too Pollyanna-ish and too optimistic? Or were we too pessimistic?” Mr. Burns said. “I think one thing we would all have to plead guilty to is having perhaps underestimated the degree of difficulty accomplishing what the United States set out to do here.”

—Additional reporting by Brad Tytel, Nicole Pesce, Raegan Johnson and Anna Lindow