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U.S. Media Reflects Bush Adminstration’s Changing Tone on Iraq War - 2003-04-01

Initial media coverage of the Iraq War in the U.S. media tended to focus on the technological advantages of the American and British troops over the Iraqis. Ten days into the conflict the tone of coverage has shifted. Whereas before reports indicated that a coalition victory would be swift and relatively easy, the same media now are reporting that the Iraq War could drag on for months.

On March 20, the day after the bombing of Baghdad began, The Washington Post newspaper ran a story with the headline “When the Enemy Doesn’t Fight Back.” The accompanying photo showed a U.S. Marine pretending to be an Iraqi captive as members of his unit practiced what to do when Iraqi soldiers surrendered.

Ten days later, newspaper and TV reports say the war may last until August and may be bloodier and costlier than expected. How did the tone of war coverage change so dramatically in such a short time period, many ask?

Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says press coverage reflects the official U.S. government view. As the Bush Administration has changed its tone, so has the American press.

“The tone of coverage of the Iraq War has definitely changed in one specific sense. At the very beginning of the war, the press, reflecting the overall view of the government, was suggesting that the war would be quick and essentially bloodless, similar to the recent wars that the U.S. has fought,” he says. “That is not the case. And in the tail end of the first week, the American coverage reflecting what it is that the officials were saying began to talk about the possibility of a longer war and a more costly war.”

Mr. Kalb says fierce Iraqi resistance caught the Pentagon – and the press – off guard.

“The turning point really came when it was clear and when officials began to suggest and reporters then began to report that this war is not going to be a cakewalk,” he says. “This is going to be difficult. The Iraqis are fighting, one general said 'tenaciously,' and it seems to me that when the press reflects that, it does change the tone, that’s true. But it’s just reflecting what it is that the official government said.”

The change in tone from the White House and Pentagon have led some to ask whether the Bush Administration may have misled the American public about the dangers of the Iraq War?

Clifford May, a former reporter for The New York Times newspaper and currently president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the Bush Administration has been candid about the costs of war.

“It’s often said that a battle plan never survives contact with the enemy,” Mr. May says. “In the early days it seemed like, wow, maybe this is going to be an exception to that, where the battle plan is so clear and the advantage, technologically and in other ways, is so obvious that it will go exactly according to plan. But in the end, I think what you’re seeing is that there is a plan. It will work, but this is still a war. It is still going to be hard. It is still going to be bloody. It is still going to call for sacrifices, and I do think that’s what we’re seeing.”

As the U.S. war plan has adapted to the realities of the Iraq War, reporters are beginning to ask more questions. Joe Conason writes a daily column for and also contributes to the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper. He says with the Bush Administration backpedaling from its early pronouncements of a quick victory, he expects to see a somewhat more aggressive media.

“I think the war coverage will be more probing and more skeptical. You could hear it in some of the press conferences in the last day or two where tougher questions were being asked about casualties and about plans and about resistance by the Iraqi military and whoever else is fighting back over there,” Mr. Conason says. “For a while, the coverage was dominated by mood music and a degree of overconfidence, and I think now there’s real concern that the costs of this war may be higher than anybody expected at the beginning.”

Opponents of the Iraq War are eager to see reporters ask tougher questions, but many wonder whether the so-called embedded journalists, those reporters who are traveling with coalition forces, will be able to report the war objectively.

Jack Shafer is the Editor-at-Large at, where he writes “Press Box”, a daily media column. He says any embedded reporter is likely to hold the troops who are protecting him in high esteem.

“I would say that no matter who the embedded reporters were, whether they were U.S. reporters embedded with U.S. units or European reporters or Southwest Asian reporters, you’re going to have an automatic affinity for the person who is protecting your life with his life,” Mr. Shafer says.

But even as embedded journalists file positive troop-friendly reports, there are other reporters filing for U.S. media who are not embedded. The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers have reporters on the ground in Baghdad, as does National Public Radio.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Clifford May says these reporters keep coverage balanced.

“I think the embedding is an interesting experiment, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I think it allows some journalists who are embedded to have the same perspective or a similar perspective as the soldiers,” he says. “You still have other journalists who are back at command and control. You have other journalists at the Pentagon. Journalists can go out on their own if they want to, though it’s a very dangerous thing to do in the midst of this kind of conflict. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it provides one more perspective, and I think that’s just fine.”

In addition to providing correspondents wider access to troops, the Pentagon is allowing television reporters to broadcast real-time footage of actual battles. People around the world are glued to their TV sets watching live action firefights in Iraq and the bombing of Baghdad. While this differs from coverage of past conflicts, Slate’s Jack Shafer says that in other ways, there are many similarities.

“If you look at the last three U.S. interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq, going into all of these interventions people are using phrases like ‘cakewalk,’ ‘it’ll be easy,’ ‘U.S. airpower will dominate.’ And that’s kind of the truth that practically everybody embraces in the press, in the Pentagon and in politics,” he says.

“The second phase of the war is ‘hey, it wasn’t that easy,’ ‘the U.S. is bogged down,’ or ‘the bombing isn’t working.’ And everybody starts to have doubts about the strategists,” Mr. Shafer says. “Part three is usually that the people being bombed or invaded turn out to be these incredible military geniuses who we’ve underestimated, and they’re using all these unconventional tactics and ‘Oh my God, it looks like Vietnam again.’”

Mr. Shafer says the U.S. media is currently in the third stage, but that the coverage likely will shift again into its fourth stage.

“The interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan were successful for the United States. I think that in the part four we’ll see the coverage will reflect what is happening on the battlefield, and you’ll see the press singing basically a different tune,” he says.

All the technological advances in reporting, from the Internet to videophones, are giving Americans and the rest of the world a much closer look at the war. But as always, the war determines coverage, not vice versa. Reporters remain more or less gifted onlookers.