At Large

Pressing the War

Donald Rumsfeld may have lost his composure, but he had a point.

By 4.16.03

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At a news conference last week, Donald Rumsfeld lost his composure. The press, he said, declined to recognize the good news; it was reporting mostly the bad news, and practicing "Henny-Penny-the-sky-is-falling" journalism. Iraq had been liberated, and its people freed, but the only story the press wanted to cover, Rumsfeld said, was the chaos in Baghdad and other cities. One newspaper, in particular, he said, had story after story about the looting, to the exclusion of almost everything else. He said the coverage was "unbelievable."

In fact, he had a point, and while he did not identify the paper he had in mind I suspect it was the New York Times. The Times now has a platoon-sized contingent of reporters in and around Iraq, and on the day that Rumsfeld got so upset, any number of them had written about the looting. Other aspects of the war were lost.

Nonetheless Rumsfeld should have known better, and his pique was unbecoming. By and large, the White House has had favorable coverage since the start of the invasion. The new Newsweek has an Iraqi kissing a marine on its cover. At the same time, there is something like a story of the day. One day, for example, it was the rescue of Jessica Lynch; the next day it was the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad. The story of the day when Rummy got annoyed was the looting. As this is being written, the story of the day seems to be that order is being restored in Baghdad.

Meanwhile the old rules about where Americans turn to for news are being rewritten. According to Nielsen Media Research, which monitors these things, CBS and ABC lost nearly 2 million viewers in the first 16 days of the war. NBC had a slight increase in its over-all audience, although that was attributed to its cable news operation. Indeed while the networks decline, the three cable news networks --Fox News, CNN and MSNBC -- have shown audience gains of more than 300 percent.

It's hard to know what to make of this. In previous heavy news cycles, 9/11 and its aftermath, for example, the network audiences always increased. This time, though, viewers may be dropping in on the war coverage at odd hours on all Iraq, all the time cable, and feel no need to watch the networks repeat what they already know. Whatever the case the coverage looks pretty much alike on all three cable networks, and except for the distinctive graphics it's hard to tell one cable network from the other. At the same time they are all cursed by talking heads with nothing important to say.

A particularly dreary thing, though, is the collapse of BBC television. The version we get in America, usually on a PBS station, is a mess. It now has two anchors -- it made do with one before -- and while hard news creeps in from time to time, it is more interested in pointless, windy interviews. BBC Radio, however, still has standards; it is still reporting the news.

Perhaps it's only a matter of one's personal taste. President Bush is said to be a fan of Fox News and the redoubtable Brit Hume, although for this viewer, at least, the happy-talk panelists on Fox leave something to be desired.

But as I said, it's a matter of personal taste, and embedded journalists, satellite communications, and night-vision cameras or not, you may still prefer print over television. If you do, and you have not been reading the New York Times's John Burns, you should be. He was in Baghdad before the war began, and has been there ever since, and his coverage has been astonishing. I have no idea how Burns got some of his stories past his Iraqi minders, but somehow he did, and if he does not win another Pulitzer Prize -- it would be his third -- there is no justice in the world of journalism.

On the other hand, the journalistic, or media world, anyway, has its own rules. Consider the fatuous, self-serving op-ed piece by Eason Jordan, the chief news executive at CNN, in the Times last week. He said that CNN had known all along that Saddam Hussein was a murderous maniac, but that it had not wanted to report it for fear that Saddam or Uday would take reprisals on CNN's Iraqi staff. "I felt awful," Jordan wrote, "having these stories bottled up inside me."

And perhaps he did feel awful, but CNN was, and still is, a commercial enterprise, and if it had reported the truth about Saddam Hussein it would have been thrown out of Iraq. But that would not have fit in with Ted Turner's dream of a one-world network, and that, I suspect, is a principal reason the truth was never reported. Turner, the founder and proprietor of CNN, you may remember, also spent much of his time in the 1980s praising the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile we still have John Burns.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.