by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
April 19, 2003
THE WAR I SAW
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I didn't watch a single minute of the Gulf War II coverage on television, but I saw what was happening in Iraq more clearly than I would have otherwise.
I'm not much of an image guy. I still believe in the power of words. I watched the war on the radio via the BBC World Service. I watched the war online via the various news sites on the Internet. I watched the war in the newspapers.
I didn't need or miss television at all. I didn't want to see the war on television, but I was in a distinct minority.
According to the Los Angeles Times, nearly 70 percent of people the paper polled said they got most of their information from the all-news cable channels such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC. But the coverage these people got sounded suspiciously like NBC's coverage of the Olympics, where the United States is the only country that gets covered and the other nations are bit players in a red, white and blue melodrama.
The New York Times is already talking about a "Fox Effect" on television news - what reporter Jim Rutenberg called "a new sort of tv journalism that casts aside traditional notions of objectivity, holds contempt for dissent and eschews the skepticism of government at mainstream journalism's core."
Fox, CNN and MSNBC's cheerleading for Gulf War II and its total marginalization of those who opposed to the war were a big reason why I didn't want to waste my time watching their coverage. Television news is vapid enough without the Fox formula of right-wing propagandizing.
However, the way I watched the war was as much a personal preference as a political one. Television is great for transmitting experience and emotion but I prefer radio and the written word for information. Though most of my news experience has been in newspapers, I started out in radio and still consider it the ideal news medium. There is a power in the human voice that almost always gets diluted when you attach pictures to it.
If you think that the United States is the only country that matters, the news you get from CNN, MSNBC or Fox will suffice. If you believe that what's happening in the other 190-odd nations of the world is equally important, you have to rely on the BBC World Service.
The BBC World Service has long been the best source for the most comprehensive international news. They present the news in a straightforward manner with a minimum of hype and a maximum of detail. When Gulf War II began, the World Service threw out its regular schedule and delivered round-the-clock coverage of the war.
Unlike the 1991 war, when I needed my shortwave radio to listen, the public radio stations where I live picked up the BBC's coverage in the overnight hours. It was a pleasure to turn on my radio and hear objective and complete reporting from experienced pros without the rah-rah nonsense we've come to expect from American television news.
"If there were a 10-meter statue of CNN's Paula Zahn, I'd be the first to throw a rope around its neck and topple it," wrote Antonia Zerbisias in The Toronto Star. "You wonder why so many Americans think Operation Iraqi Freedom is going to end happily ever after? You would, too, if all you heard were fairy tales."
The fairy tales were in short supply on the BBC. They were also absent from Canadian newspapers such as the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, Australian papers such as The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and British papers such as The Guardian and The Independent.
Reading their accounts of the war was conclusive proof that: 1. There are few dailies in America that are even remotely close to the level of these papers; 2. The American press still thinks that consumers aren't sophisticated enough to handle news that's not viewed through a prism of red, white and blue; 3. Unlike their American counterparts, British, Canadian and Australian news consumers get treated like adults.
The newspaper coverage - particularly in the overseas papers - was essential to understanding the war and offered the detail and context that television never provides. The "embedding" policy of the Pentagon was not without its flaws, but we got a better look at what our troops were doing in this war that we did during Gulf War II.
The big problem with the American news coverage, though, was its general subservience to the White House and the Pentagon. There was very little critical reporting and very little coverage of what was happening to the Iraqis. For instance, remember those five divisions of the Republican Guard that were guarding Baghdad? Where did they go? They were blasted to bits by days of bombing by U.S. warplanes. But no reporters were embedded with the Iraqi forces.
It was dangerous enough for the non-embedded reporters who stayed in Baghdad. Fourteen journalists died in the first four weeks of the conflict. The worst day was April 8, when U.S. troops fired on the Palestine Hotel - the main base for journalists covering the war in Baghdad - and killed a Spanish tv cameraman and a Reuters cameraman. Four others were hurt in the attack, which came just hours after a U.S. warplane bombed al-Jazeera's news office in Baghdad and killed a cameraman.
These reporters died trying to show the side of the war that was apparently suppressed on American television - the wanton slaughter of thousands of Iraqis in this war; so many that the Iraqi hospitals stopped counting. While U.S. forces denied that they were targeting journalists, you can't help but wonder why the events of April 8 took place - especially when you contrast with the now-infamous razing of the giant Saddam Hussein statue in central Baghdad on April 9; an event that was apparently a staged photo-op.
By choice, I saw a different war than most Americans. It was a war that I still believe was illegal, immoral and wrong. It was a war that our leaders had to justify with lies and crude propaganda. It was a war without glory, without heroes.
You had to look hard to find this side of Gulf War II, but it was out there if you were willing to dig for it. The fact that so many Americans were willing to sit back and believe the version of events fed to them by the cable news channels shows what kind of nation we have become.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).