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The Unseen War

1.

The Coalition Media Center, at the Saliyah military base in Doha, Qatar, seems designed to be as annoying and inconvenient as possible for reporters. To get there from the center of town, you have to take a half-hour ride through a baking, barren expanse of desert. At the gate, you have to submit your electronic equipment to a K-9 search, your bags to inspection, and your body to an X-ray scan. You then have to wait under the scorching sun for a military escort, who, after checking your credentials, takes you to the press bus. When the bus is full, you’re driven the two hundred yards to the media center. The bus lets you off in a concrete courtyard surrounded by a seven-foot-high wall topped by barbed wire. If you stand on a ledge and look out, you’ll see two rows of identical warehouse-like buildings—the offices of General Tommy Franks and the US Central Command.

Journalists, though, never get inside these buildings, for they’re restricted to the windowless media center, which is sixty feet long, brightly lit, and heavily air-conditioned. Inside the front door is a large space with long counters at which reporters for second-tier news organizations work. Extending out from this area are three corridors housing the offices of the TV networks, wire services, and major newspapers. Along the back wall is the door to the UK press office. Knock on it and moments later an officer in fatigues will appear and field your request. By contrast, the door to the US office, to the right of the main entrance, opens onto an empty corridor, and if you knock on it no one will answer. Instead, you have to phone the office and leave your request with the officer on duty. If you’re lucky, someone will come out and speak with you.

During the war, many of the reporters crammed into the center would dial the US number, seeking to check facts, get some background information, or ferret out a bit of news. Usually, they’d be disappointed. Getting confirmation for even the most basic facts filed by reporters in the field would often prove difficult. Occasionally, a senior press officer would emerge to speak with a reporter, and within minutes a ravenous mob would surround him, desperately seeking to shake loose something even remotely newsworthy.

The daily briefings were even less helpful. Held in a large conference hall with the now-famous $250,000 stage set, the briefings were normally conducted by Vincent Brooks, a tall, erect, one-star general who is impeccably polite, unflappable, and remarkably uninformative. Each briefing would begin with a few choice videos—black-and-white clips of “precision-guided” missiles unfailingly hitting their targets, and color shots of American troops distributing aid to grateful Iraqis. No matter what was taking place inside Iraq, Brooks would insist that the coalition remained “on plan” and that morale remained “sky high.” Sometimes the general offered outright misinformation. When, for instance, the Palestine Hotel was hit by a US tank shell, which killed two journalists and wounded several others, Brooks asserted that US forces had come under fire from the hotel. This was denied by the journalists on the scene, and the commander of the unit that fired the shell, in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, made no mention of being fired on from the hotel. Still, Colin Powell, citing no evidence, later repeated the claim that “our forces responded to hos-tile fire, appearing to come from” the hotel.

The Coalition Media Center is managed by Jim Wilkinson, a fresh-faced, thirty-two-year-old Texan and a protégé of Bush’s adviser Karen Hughes. Wilkinson made his mark during the 2000 presidential election when he spoke on behalf of GOP activists protesting the Florida ballot recount. To run the media center in Doha, Wilkinson, a member of the naval reserve, appeared in the same beige fatigues as the career officers working under him. Nonetheless, the center had all the earmarks of a political campaign, with press officers always “on message.” Many journalists, accustomed to the smoothly purring Bush political machine, were struck by the heavy-handedness of the Doha operation. A week into the war, journalists began writing their own “media pieces,” as they called them, com-paring the briefings to the infamous “Five O’Clock Follies” of the Vietnam War.

Rarely, though, did those stories examine how well the press, radio, and television themselves were doing, and that was unfortunate. For, with more than seven hundred registered journalists, the Coalition Media Center offered a superb opportunity for observing how reporters of different nations approached the war, and for understanding the many shortcomings in their coverage.

2.

So stingy is Centcom with information that, at the daily briefings, the questions asked were often more revealing than the answers given. Those posed by European and Arab journalists tended to be more pointed and probing than those from the Americans. The Europeans and Arabs would ask about the accuracy of US missiles, the use of weapons containing depleted uranium, the extent of civilian casualties. The Americans would ask questions such as: “Why hasn’t Iraqi broadcasting been taken out?” “Is Iraq using weapons prohibited by the UN?” “Can you offer more details on the rescue of Jessica Lynch?” One US network correspondent told me that she was worried that, if she pushed too hard at the briefings, she would no longer be called on. Jim Wilkinson was known to rebuke reporters whose copy he deemed insufficiently supportive of the war; he darkly warned one correspondent that he was on a “list” along with two other reporters at his paper.

After each briefing, correspondents for the major satellite networks would stand up in back and give a live report before a camera. Sometimes I took a seat nearby and listened. The British correspondents invariably included some analysis in their reports. After one briefing, for instance, James Forlong of Sky News observed that Tommy Franks had left the briefing to his “fourth in command” (i.e., Brooks), and that “very little detail had been provided.” Referring to a question about a friendly-fire incident, Forlong noted that Brooks had little to say other than that the incident was “under investigation.” CNN’s Tom Mintier, by contrast, would faithfully recite Brooks’s main points, often with signs of approval. “They showed some amazing footage of a raid on a palace,” he said when introducing a clip that had been shown at the briefing, one of many that CNN aired.

Such differences in style were apparent in the broadcasts themselves. Switching stations in my hotel, I often found myself drawn to the BBC. With two hundred reporters, producers, and technicians in the field, its largest deployment ever, the network offered no-nonsense anchors, tenacious correspondents, perceptive features, and a host of commentators steeped in knowledge of the Middle East, in contrast to the retired generals and colonels we saw on American TV. Reporters were not afraid to challenge the coalition’s claims. When an anchor asked Paul Adams, a BBC defense correspondent, whether Iraqi fighters were using “quasi-terrorist tactics”—a common Centcom charge—he said it was more appropriate to speak of “asymmetrical warfare,” i.e., the use of unconventional tactics by forces that were badly outgunned. At the same time, the BBC presented many stories about the horrors of Saddam’s rule. In one chilling piece, it had an interview with an Iraqi woman in London whose family members had been murdered, raped, or tortured by the regime.

At times, the BBC seemed relatively slow and ponderous. When the tape of Saddam’s appearance in the streets of Baghdad was shown on al-Jazeera, the BBC took ten minutes longer than other networks to air it. A feature about Günter Grass and his visceral hatred for America seemed to be repeated endlessly. All in all, though, the BBC maintained a consistent standard of skepticism toward all sides. “We’re very conscious that our audience is not just a coalition audience but an international one,” Jonathan Marcus, a correspondent for BBC Radio, told me. “Tone, style, and terminology are all employed with that very much in mind. That has sharpened our journalism enormously.”

The BBC got some stiff competition from Sky News. With a much smaller staff than the BBC, this London-based channel (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch) seemed far more nimble. One of its correspondents, Geoff Meade, became known at the media center for his sharp, if sometimes grandiloquent, questions. When Baghdad was about to fall without the discovery of any weapons of mass destruction, he asked, “Is this war going to make history by being the first to end before its cause could be found?” Among Sky’s regular commentators, Con Coughlin, a biographer of Saddam and a Daily Telegraph editor, explained how Baath Party loyalists would likely have been recruited to play a part in Saddam’s allegedly spontaneous street appearances.

After watching the British reports, I found the American ones jarring. In my hotel, MSNBC always seemed to be on, and I was shocked by its mawkishness and breathless boosterism. Its anchors mostly recounted tales of American bravery and derring-do. After the US attacks on the Palestine Hotel and the offices of al-Jazeera in Baghdad, MSNBC brought on its resident terrorism expert, Steve Emerson, who insisted—before any of the facts were in—that the attacks were accidental. MSNBC’s “embedded” reporters, meanwhile, seemed utterly intoxicated by the war. In one tendentious account, Dr. Bob Arnot—normally assigned to the health beat—excitedly followed his cameraman into an unlighted building where two captured Iraqi fighters were being held near the entrance while a group of women and children could be seen in back. “They’re fighting outside,” Arnot said with indignation. “Here in the front are RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] used to kill Marines, and in the back are these women and children—civilian hostages. And they’re terrified.” But terrified of what? The captured men in the front room? The fighting outside? Were they being held against their will? Arnot never asked.

Before arriving in Doha, I had spent hours watching CNN back home, and I was sadly reminded of the network’s steady decline in recent years. Paula Zahn looked and talked like a cheerleader for the US forces; Aaron Brown kept reaching for the profound remark without ever finding it; Wolf Blitzer politely interviewed Washington’s high and mighty, seldom asking a pointed question. None of them, however, appeared on the broadcasts I saw in Doha. Instead, there were Jim Clancy, a tough-minded veteran American correspondent, Michael Holmes, a soft-spoken Australian, and Becky Anderson, a sharp and inquisitive British anchor. This was CNN International, the edition broadcast to the world at large, and it was far more serious and informed than the American version.

The difference was not accidental. Six months before the war began, I was told, executives at CNN headquarters in Atlanta met regularly to plan separate broadcasts for America and the world. Those executives knew that Zahn’s girl-next-door manner and Brown’s spacey monologues would not go down well with the British, French, or Germans, much less the Egyptians or Turks, and so the network, at huge expense, fielded two parallel but separate teams to cover the war. And while there was plenty of overlap, especially in the reports from the field, and in the use of such knowledgeable journalists as Christiane Amanpour, the international edition was refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory talk of its domestic one. In one telling moment, Becky Anderson, listening to one of Walter Rodgers’s excited reports about US advances in the field, admonished him: “Let’s not give the impression that there’s been no resistance.” Rodgers conceded that she was right.

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