History of War Coverage

War Coverage
Edward R. Murrow, former reporter for CBS once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if weremember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were, for the moment unpopular.” Times are changing when it comes to the media covering wars. There was once a time in our country when journalists were not afraid to report the realities and atrocities, to a reasonable extent, that occurred during wartime. During the Vietnam conflict America saw what actually was happening in the jungle on the other side of the world and it enabled citizens to form their own opinions about the war. Recent wars, such as the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom do not allow the citizens of the United States to see and experience what is really happening. We see a sanitized version of the war, we are shown only material that boosts moral and support for the troops and our government, but we do not see enough of the war to realize that everything does not go as smooth as it seems. War coverage has changed over the years in many aspects. Freedom of the journalists, the relationship between the press and the military and the technology are the significant aspects of change in war coverage.

The Second World War was covered in a way that is very different than what we are used to today. The news was aired mainly by radio because television was still in its early days during the war. The journalists and the military were more allies than enemies, with each of them helping the other. When it came to the overall purpose of the war, the US correspondents (and their Allied counterparts) were no less committed to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan than were the commanders who led their troops into battle. As a result, the notion that our armed forces needed somehow to “handle” the press was irrelevant. Press relations–or “media” relations, as the Pentagon would have phrased it–did not yet exist in the way we recognize them from our post-Vietnam experience (Rather). There was a sense of mutual respect between the two organizations in World War II, they both understood what they were out there to accomplish.
Although the relationship between the press and the military was very good there was fairly strict censorship on what they were allowed to report. The D-Day media plans called for each corps in the operation to be accompanied by seven war correspondents, three photographers, two public relations officers, four press censors, two radio operators and two driver-messengers (Hernandez). The public relations officers and the press censors would screen all the material prior to it being released to the public. Much of the news on the war gathered would be edited and cut down by the press censors but often times the news could be reported with some slight persuasion. If reporters were able to convince the officers that the deleted or delayed material would in no way jeopardize security or other classified considerations, then there was a good chance that a decision to censor would be reversed (Rather). The press had a significant disadvantage compared to the journalists of today in the area of technology. The war was depicted in the United States through radios and newspapers. Television was very new during World War II so it was not a “living room war,” like the conflicts to come in the future.
At the heart of the harmonious bond between the military and the press during World War II was a clear sense of mutual trust and shared objectives. The military brass generally recognized that the primary concern of most US correspondents was the welfare of the American troops and a complete victory that would bring an unconditional end to tyranny in Europe and Asia. In return, the journalists trusted the officers to understand that, within the necessary limits of security, the flow of honest reporting was a freedom to respect–indeed, it was a freedom they were fighting to defend in the war (Rather). World War II showed a press and military relationship that will be found in no war again to date.

The Vietnam War brought about a whole new way of covering wars. Vietnam was a “living room war,” which meant people could turn on their televisions and see the series of events unfold in the war that was taking place on the other side of the world. The technology was not extremely advanced but it was developed enough to be able to provide live video to the citizens of the United States. With the development of portable 16mm film cameras and lightweight audio equipment, television crews can go anywhere. The footage is shot, transported by airplane to the United States, edited and on television within forty eight hours (newseum.org).
The war began to deteriorate a once strong relationship between the press and the military into somewhat of a hatred towards each other. When journalists went to Vietnam, they found a political, diplomatic, and military quagmire, and when they reported it, efforts were made to discredit them both professionally and personally. This led to an escalation of mistrust between experienced journalists and the country’s leadership (Rather). The United States government and military realized that they were engulfed in a situation that the U.S. citizens would not support. High ranking officers in the military purposely tried to deceive journalists so the American people would not turn against their efforts in Vietnam. Fabricated information was provided to journalists at times which soured the relationship between the press and the military and sent a false sense of stability back to the citizens at home watching the war on television. Journalists came into contact with little censorship but many of the atrocities that occurred during the war were too heinous to report. Since “war” was never technically declared there was no basis for a censorship program to be established (newseum.org). Sanitized images of the war for television and fabricated stories of significant progress for the Americans clouded the minds of the American people.

The Persian Gulf War brought in a whole new type of technology into the coverage and a style of censorship similar to that which occurred during World War II. Although the style of censorship was similar, censors were much stricter on what could be printed and aired. Excessive censorship and control of the press hid much of the accomplishment at the time and has shrouded much of it since then. The shroud includes a weave of confusion and uncertainty caused by the fact that those who set the rules allowed so little of the first-hand record to be compiled by independent witnesses. Too many unnecessary controls and ill-conceived policies concerning the flow of information clouded a story of great courage, effective strategy, and mighty triumph (Rather). The Gulf War only lasted a short amount of time but the American people did not get to see what actually happened. They were shown images and videos compiled by the U.S. military that did not show any graphic scenes, just images of bomb blasts in the distance. At the beginning of the war, the military established a pool system, in which a small group of journalists covered an event for the entire press corps. Many journalists believed that the Pentagon used the pool system to have control over the reporters. The pool system had many problems such as; lack of cooperation, different media needs and infighting (newseum.org).
The technology used by journalists during the Gulf War was unlike anything they had at their disposable in previous wars. Ted Turner created Cable News Network, commonly referred to as CNN, in 1980. CNN is transmitted by satellite to nearly every country in the entire world. The satellite enabled CNN to broadcast constant coverage of the war (newseum.org). U.S. officials used CNN to trick Saddam Hussein by reporting false locations and strategies. Reporters utilized early versions of satellite phones and digital photography. The equipment they used was fairly large and it was difficult to obtain clear, high-resolution pictures. Chest-high satellite phones used to cover Operation Desert Storm weighed 50 to 60 pounds and, at about $50,000, were very, very expensive (Rosenberg). The equipment was fairly heavy therefore reporters would have a difficult time lugging it around with them. In 1991, electronic photography consisted of high-end still-video cameras, which produced lower-resolution analog images that were printed and scanned or transmitted via converters to picture desks — a promising technology made obsolete by the digital developments of the 1990s (Rosenberg). Although reporters had various new technologies at their disposable it will prove to be much out of date in the next Iraq War, when miniaturization is the new phenomenon.
The Iraq War, which began in 2002, had some of the same aspects of coverage as the first Gulf War. Because the immediate outcome of the Persian Gulf War was a favorable one, the US military may believe that it has now found the right formula to compensate for the post-Vietnam changes in its relationship with the press (Rather). Some believe that the widespread disproval of the Vietnam War was due to the press coverage but in reality it was the number of Americans arriving home in body bags. U.S. officials believed that their strict control of the press during the first Gulf War facilitated their success in Iraq. The military started a new form of censorship with the development of the “embed” program for the press. The “embed” program, in which the Pentagon attached some 600 print, radio, and TV reporters with coalition forces for the Iraq invasion, gave reporters unprecedented access to the battlefield, allowing them to file uncensored views of the action in real time. In return, embeds vowed not to reveal anything that would endanger “operational security”troop strength, location, strategy, etc (Shafer). While allowing the press to obtain “uncensored” views of the action, the military still had control of what could be shown to the public.

The technology used in this war by the press was much improved in all aspects. Images, video and sound are much clearer than ever before and the equipment is much smaller and much more mobile. In the decade since the Gulf War, the continuing miniaturization of equipment and other advances are making everything from cameras to satellite communications much better adapted to battlefield conditions than anything available in the Gulf War (Rather). Reporters can gather much of what they need through handheld digital video cameras. Most of their equipment can fit in a small bag so they are not held back by heavy, bulky equipment. Reporter Dean Staley and photographer Joe Caffrey carried a miniDV, a videophone and a Toshiba laptop. Instead of the Newstar 5 satellite truck, they took two duffel bags of gear (Barnhart). All of the equipment is becoming smaller and less expensive than equipment used fifteen years ago.
Wars have been covered in very different ways. World War II displayed the bonds and mutual respect between the military and the press but those bonds began to deteriorate. The press is striving to inform the public to the best of their ability during wartime because a uniformed society can lead to much worse problems in the future. Not everything can be reported to the public, but we should be able to know exactly what is happening to our friends and family members fighting in battle. Sophisticated equipment is being invented everyday to help journalists uncover the real story about what is happening during wartime. Dan Rather once said, “If the public is misled, if they are not told the truth–or if, through unnecessary secrecy and deception, they lack information on which to base intelligent decisions–the system, or some version of it, may go on. But it will not survive as a constitutional republic based on democratic principles. Political leadership may be able to survive for a time on the politics of lying, but not the country. War, moreover, cannot be sustained for long and cannot be victorious in a society such as ours if the military systematically conspires with civilian leaders in the politics of deception.” Citizens of the world rely on the press to provide us with accurate information to keep us safe from our own demise. One of the most dangerous things could be a uniformed society living their lives based on false perceptions of our dilemmas and government.


Works Cited
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Rather, Dan. “Truth on the Battlefield.” Harvard International Review.
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Rosenberg, Jim. “Tech from Gulf War to Gulf War.” Editor & Publisher.
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Shafer, Jack. “Embeds and Unilaterals.” 1 May 2003.
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