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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

War reporting: Truth is out there

Sure, opinion columns can make your blood boil. Usually, it's not the opinion expressed that makes me crazy. If a point of view - even one I thoroughly disagree with - is presented in a thoughtful, reasoned manner without broad generalizations or lazy fallbacks on tired political labels, I'll read it word for word.

Some columnists and media pundits say outrageous things to get a rise out of their readers or viewers. I try not to stoop to that style. I don't always succeed.

As a practice, I try not to react to other opinion writers even when I think their commentaries are off the charts ridiculous.

I don't always succeed. There was no way I could let Bill O'Reilly's warped perception of American war reporting stand. The man who grandstands on the ultra-nationalistic Fox News Channel groused that the war press coverage was full of hype and untruths. I couldn't agree more.

It's his conclusion I reject.

Mr. O'Reilly is absolutely right that the media - both print and electronic - are hyping their reporting of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to compete for readers and viewers. Some newspapers are bold and flashy above the fold to boost sales and TV networks are just plain flashy to boost ratings.

The very reason reporters are “embedded” with American military units in the field is to bring the battle as up close and personal (and Ernie Pyle sympathetic) as sharing a foxhole can get.

But coverage of the war by American journalists has been anything but neutral, unbiased, or independent. Mr. O'Reilly complains about the quality of reporting but for all the wrong reasons.

Like others on Fox, his version of biased reporters - “ideologues masquerading as news people” - are those media folk who aren't aggressively cheerleading for the U.S. military or relaying a national sense of unity for the Bush Administration in time of war.

Mr. O'Reilly worries that the truth, according to the U.S. military, is getting lost in the hype of battle coverage that includes irksome combat descriptions like “fierce fighting” or “ferocious resistance.”

The last straw for Mr. O'Reilly was an e-mail he received from a writer he said was an irate U.S. Army colonel. The field commander was angry that the media hadn't raved enough about the military successes of the Third Infantry Division.

Mr. O'Reilly says the e-mail reveals an eyewitness account of the real story from “an American field commander who wants you to know what your military is experiencing.”

The Fox pundit concedes it would be difficult to know “the truth about specific battles” because embedded reporters are kept away from the front lines for their own safety. So why does he assume a military account of military action is the gospel truth? And why would he conclude that if you're not hearing how great the American military is performing, your local media are doing you a disservice?

Besides, the flag-waving coverage Fox embraces is certainly more the rule than the exception at other news outlets.

Most of the coverage I've seen or read has been a presentation of the U.S. government's position without question. Administration bigwigs insert their propaganda phrases like Iraqi “death squads” or official views that the military invasion (sorry, liberation) of Iraq is proceeding exactly as planned, and the news is parroted verbatim by many in the U.S. media. You have to search out BBC reports to hear an entirely different story.

NBC felt the wrath of the pro-war crowd - agitated, of course, by Fox partisans - and quickly canned Peter Arnett for embarrassing the network with his glaring display of bad judgment. He said nothing that scores of his stateside network colleagues weren't saying to color their news reports, but the fool did it on Iraqi TV.

Mr. O'Reilly's Fox News Channel colleague, on the other hand, broke the first rule of embedded reporters not to compromise the security of their military unit and is still “reporting” for the network. Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera got carried away with himself again by outlining planned troop movements in the sand for viewers at home. Fox was curiously muted about the blunder.

Truth, to paraphrase an old quote, is the first casualty of war. The news sources supplying information from the frontline, whether they be overly sympathetic to or overly skeptical about U.S. military action, should at least come with a “buyer beware” alert to discriminating American news consumers.



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