A War Like No Other

James Zogby’s Column

This is a war like no other.  I am not referring to its preemptive, regime changing aims or its potentially dramatic regional implications.  What, in fact, makes this war so unique is its worldwide audience.  Never before has a confrontation of this sort been followed so closely and covered by so many diverse and competing networks. 

Americans are watching the drama unfold on any one of more than a half-dozen U.S. television networks.  Two additional venues provide U.S. viewers with daily news broadcasts from France, Germany and the U.K. and millions of Americans with access to satellite television can watch the conflict as it is covered by multiple Arab networks.  In addition, every major newspaper has added a special section filled with daily coverage, news reports and photographs.  And the web provides Americans access to a universal range of attitudes and coverage about the war.

In a recent poll of more than 1,000 Americans conducted for Abu Dhabi TV, we found that 67% of Americans claim to be “very closely following the war with Iraq”, with 36% saying they are watching more than three hours of war coverage each day.  Another 44% indicate that they are watching the war from between one to three hours a day.   

With all of this information saturation, it is not surprising that the U.S. media has begun to critique itself and their news sources within the Administration. 

For example, all of the major U.S. TV networks and leading newspapers have journalists “embedded” with U.S. forces traveling north to Baghdad.  Initially the networks thought that this would allow their reporters first-hand coverage of the battles as they unfolded.  Some suggested that the Pentagon supported the idea assuming that it would give them the opportunity to present a positive story of the war.  So far, however, what viewers have received are endless hours of tanks and trucks rolling northward through the desert and little else.  The Washington Post recently commented that one of the drawbacks of the embedded system is that it “gives such intimate visual knowledge that we may be deluded into thinking we actually know and feel what is going on.”  In other words, we see the bombs in far-off Baghdad and we feel ourselves to be in the tanks in the desert but the amount of information actually dispensed is quite minimal.  The Boston Globe commented on the difference between Arab and U.S. coverage by noting, “the Arab world sees pictures of bloodied bodies of young children.  They watch scenes crowded with corpses, including gruesome images of dead American soldiers.  Americans see almost none of that.  Their view of the war in Iraq, through television and print, is dominated by long distance photos of bombs going off in Baghdad, and intimate battlefield scenes conveyed by reporters, who are traveling with U.S. and British soldiers.  The two contrasting visions of this war, one seen by Americans and the other seen in the Middle East, help to sharpen differences over the conflict.”

It is intriguing that although all of the U.S. networks have been regularly using live footage from the Arab television networks, (primarily Abu Dhabi, Al Jazeera, and LBC), what they have used are largely long range, shots of Iraq at night, with bombs going off in the background.  What it appears Americans will remember of this war are tanks in the desert and explosions in Baghdad at night.

The major print outlets have been far more graphic and detailed in their coverage.  U.S. reporters working on their own in Baghdad have been able to write powerful stories about the horrors of war.  This coverage and sharp questions from print media reporters at Pentagon briefings has earned the media criticism from the Administration.  They have been accused of working to create a demoralized public. 

More than one week into this conflict and already one important trend has become apparent as a result of this media information saturation.  For the most part, despite extensive coverage and intense viewership, attitudes remained largely unchanged both in the U.S., and in the Arab world.  If anything they are being hardened.  In the United States those who are against the war are selecting out those parts of the news that validate their opposition.  Likewise, those that support this war believe the military briefings, Secretary Rumsfeld and pieces of stories that fit their view. 

Thus, even with all the access to information and coverage of the war from multiple sources, it appears that viewers are selecting out of that information evidence that validates their preexisting prejudices.  Polling shows that rather than changing opinion, the war and coverage of the war to date, has simply locked people more firmly into their views. 

At the same time, there are a few issues that have crept through the “fog of war” and these have begun to have an impact, not on support or opposition for the war but on the public concerns about the war.  In particular has been the fact that the war has not been as its supporters described it, “a cakewalk”.  Iraqi resistance has been more intense than expected and U.S. casualties, though limited, have played out on television.  This has had a decided impact on attitudes.  For example, on the second day of the war 62% of Americans thought the war would be quick and successful with only 32% thinking it would be long and costly.  Two days later those numbers had changed to 43% believing the war would be quick and successful while 53% believed it would be a long and costly involvement.  This has further led the public to question the cost of the war and the planning that has thus far gone into the war.    

In the end, this erosion of confidence can be as troubling to the Administration as opposition to the war. 

With the real battles still ahead, the role of media in this war has become a factor of some importance that may deserve as much scrutiny as the actual combat itself. 

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.