It’s the Story, Not the Storyteller

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Will news coverage of the fighting in Iraq undermine the American public’s support for the war?

That question arises now that the initially euphoric war coverage has turned more sober. Read a newspaper or watch television and you know why General Sherman said “War is hell.”

Lurking behind the more critical coverage is the specter of Vietnam. The news media have long been blamed for contributing to the U.S. defeat there.

For years the Pentagon acted on that belief by keeping journalists away from the battlefield. It blocked reporters from accompanying U.S. troops during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. A U.S. fighter jet even flew a mock bombing run over a boat journalists had chartered to reach the Caribbean island.

The Pentagon switched to pool reporting for the Persian Gulf War. Military officers escorted small groups of reporters through the war zone. News organizations weren’t grateful. They cried censorship. In Afghanistan, the Pentagon simply kept reporters off the battlefield.

For Iraq, the Pentagon tried something revolutionary—”embedding” journalists in combat units. Some 600 reporters are now in the field. Even Al Jazeera has an embedded reporter.

The Pentagon changed strategies partly because officials concluded that denying reporters access hurt U.S. interests. It encouraged the belief Washington had something to hide. In contrast, having independent journalists on the battlefield would help protect American forces against being blamed for war crimes committed by Iraqi forces.

Some officials also hoped that journalists would bond with their units and write more positive stories as a result. These stories would enjoy credibility at home and abroad because they would be coming from independent journalists. That would let the Pentagon shape the war story without appearing to do so.

The embedding strategy rested on the same assumption that guided the Pentagon’s overall planning for war—that it would be short and popular. Decisive wars in which the vanquished cheer the victors make for glowing news coverage.

The Iraq War may still turn out to be short. But a cakewalk it is not, as the embedded reporting makes clear. Whether these reports cast the war in a good or bad light often lies in the eye of the beholder. A story that lionizes the bravery of U.S. troops facing unexpected resistance also can be seen as an implicit rebuke of an administration that underestimated its adversary.

The television commentary of numerous retired generals adds to the skepticism. They too began as cheerleaders for U.S. forces. Now many have begun to grouse about the wisdom of the administration’s “rolling start” strategy.

The Pentagon is creating its own problems. Lt. Gen. William Wallace’s statement last week that “the enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we’d war-gamed against” legitimized every complaint that the administration had hoped for the best and planned for it as well.

Central Command’s daily briefings haven’t helped. The $200,000 state-of-the-art auditorium with its five plasma television screens cannot hide the briefers’ reluctance to share news. Their formulaic answers recall the famed “Five O’Clock Follies” press briefings of the Vietnam War.

So are we witnessing Vietnam redux as critical news coverage saps public support for the war? No.

One reason for this conclusion is that Americans didn’t sour on Vietnam because reporters told the story badly. Polls show that a majority of the public had concluded Vietnam was a mistake by summer 1967. As Daniel Hallin demonstrated in his classic work, The “Uncensored War,” news coverage at that time was largely positive and blood-free.

Americans soured on Vietnam because the story was bad. The war combined high casualties and no apparent progress toward victory. Two administrations destroyed their credibility pretending otherwise. The Johnson White House recalled Gen. William Westmoreland to the United States in late 1967 to shore up flagging public support. He assured Americans that “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” The Tet Offensive came two months later.

The other reason to doubt we are witnessing Vietnam redux is that Americans are, as the political scientist Bruce Jentleson has written, “pretty prudent.” They know the easy victory didn’t happen. They have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Whereas only one in three Americans thought two weeks ago that the war would last several months, now two in three do. A majority has also concluded that the Bush administration underestimated the difficulty of unseating Saddam. This conclusion may come back to haunt the White House even if the war ends quickly.

But Americans also understand that misplaced optimism does not make the decision to invade Iraq wrong. Support for the war continues to exceed 70 percent. Reports of executed prisoners of war and terrorist attacks on U.S. troops are likely to further stiffen public resolve. American patriotism is at least as potent a force as Iraqi nationalism.

What will sap public support is if U.S. forces suffer high casualties and the march on Baghdad stalls. That is the real lesson of Vietnam. What matters is not the story tellers, but the story itself.