That's Entertainment! News Coverage and the War in Iraq

Pan in to David Bloom on an M88 Armored Recovery Vehicle "leaning back from the camera like a sailboat skipper readying for a turn," as Alessandra Stanley described him in the New York Times.

Pan in to David Bloom on an M88 Armored Recovery Vehicle "leaning back from the camera like a sailboat skipper readying for a turn," as Alessandra Stanley described him in the New York Times. You can almost feel the sun burning your eyes and taste the sand in your mouth. But wait - you are actually on your scruffy living room couch lost somewhere in suburbia…  

Before his unexpected death, Bloom and other embedded correspondents brought us the intoxicating sexiness of "Operation Iraqi Freedom--raw and unedited." For three weeks, we lived the war, courtesy of the broadcast, Internet and print media. It was the ultimate in reality TV and it reflects the new wave in news coverage.  

Over the past two decades, and especially since the birth of CNN (and its stunning coverage of the 1991 Gulf War), news and entertainment have been converging. The hybrid--often termed  "newtainment"--focuses on presenting facts quickly and in a "flashy" style. Though cable channels and Internet streaming video have perfected this modus operandi, print outlets have happily jumped on the bandwagon. Why? Ratings, ratings, ratings. To get audience numbers up, you have to give them a Hollywood blockbuster.  

Gulf War II was an ideal opportunity to perfect the "newtainment" genre - and to acknowledge what we want from news has changed. The current, heated debates over conservative or liberal news bias, whether we saw too much or too little, and the value of technology and embeds in the field misses this bigger picture.  

News as entertainment has been a long time in the making.  Its roots can be traced to a cross-pollination of celebrity news shows and reality TV.  ABC's long-running popular culture coverage on Entertainment Tonight and NBC's celebrity-studded Extra news magazine laid the groundwork for the cult of the celebrity.  Cable picked up on this fixation and developed niche promotional channels. Then MTV hit the jackpot with 1992's The Real World, where seven strangers were filmed struggling to live in one house.  The Real World's popularity and cost-effectiveness enticed broadcasters to jump into the fray and the reality filmmaking genre became a staple of primetime line-ups.  

How did Gulf War II up the ante?  

First, by its love affair with celebrity. The White House and Pentagon were the primary purveyors of this myth-making. From footage of POW Private Lynch's rescue to daily Central Command press briefings, the Bush Administration is credited with a successful spin operation. News networks followed the party line to varying degrees, from Fox's overt flag-waving to MSNBC's slightly more subtle wall of heroes called " America 's Bravest," a compilation of photos sent by viewers of their loved ones serving in the war. Whether jingoism is healthy in news reporting is a debate that deserves attention. But in the context of understanding the media's performance, it is clear that supporting the troops--and inadvertently supporting the war--was a positioning tactic for many U.S. news outlets.  And they had to use the images that went along with the hype.  

As a result, inadvertently or sometimes overtly (I am thinking of Geraldo Rivera drawing us maps in the sand), embeds got caught up in the story.  With their helmets and gas masks, they made war look exciting. Broadcasters played up the appeal by creating website links to correspondents in the field, and by having embeds read news that was fed from network headquarters. After all, wasn't it more interesting to have Ted Koppel give you the latest in his battle fatigues, than Peter Jennings in his staid studio attire?  

Technological advances in communications equipment made this possible, and Gulf War II used only the best. Reality filmmaking reached its zenith with more satellites and advanced Internet connectivity, enabling reporters to file stories literally on the run: handheld video cameras captured on the ground firefights and live videophone reports conveyed life in the desert. The images were not always perfect - videophone images were grainy and jerky - and they only offered a slice of the playing field, but they connected the audience to the battleground like never before.  

That's the "flashy, fast" part of "newtainment",  but what about the facts? You could argue that flashy and fast are not all that bad, that in fact, the media effectively utilized embeds and upgrades in technology to get information to the public creatively and quickly.  

But, again, what about the facts? Understanding audience desire for celebrity and real-time images does not mean that media outlets did a good job with the facts.  In fact, if the media can be faulted for one thing, it is how much producers, editors and reporters got caught up in the bells and whistles of communications gadgets and forgot about news basics.  

As a result, the quantity of information flowing in far outpaced the quality of context applied in dissecting data. The primary culprits on this front were the cable networks who spent more time replaying the same footage of Saddam's falling statue and debating moot points than broadcast networks.  The Chicago Tribune's Steve Johnson points out:  "It was the [cable] channels where you had to constantly reorient yourself, slowly realizing that this morning's report of a downed Apache helicopter, presented as "news" (i.e., new), was in fact referring to the same downed Apache you had heard about last night."