Like millions of other people, I spent a lot of time last night watching the war
. There were lots of talking heads
, retired general
s, and lots of reporters out with the troops.
In America, delivering the news is a commercial business. Profits, not public service, drive programming. Years ago, most networks shut down most of their overseas news bureaus because they were "too expensive". The assumption seems to be that American's don't care about little countries, or at least we won't pay for that kind of news.
This is not to say the networks are incapable of doing good work. They still have extensive resources, and some very good people. In event of a crisis, like a war, they can flood a situation with correspondents. There are some very good and experienced war correspondents and military reporters. But it seems like many young reporters got their job primarily because they have a journalism degree and they happen to be really hot.
Consider the exchange I saw last night. A young reporter was interviewing a Captain in the US Third Infantry Division (Mechanized). The reporter asked the officer when he was leaving and what he expected to meet. The Captain politely dodged the question. The reporter kept on asking the same question several times, each time changing the wording in subtle ways. The Captain kept on giving the reporter the same answer, changing his working in subtle ways.
Get a clue!
No combat officer is going to tell a reporter where his unit is going, when it's going to leave and what it expects to leave before an operation. That's militarily useful information that his Enemy would like to have. The Iraqis get CNN too. That Army Captain probably has a wife and children he would like to see again. His troopers also have families. If they are killed in action he will be expected to write a letter to the families of the deceased. If the widow lives near his units base. He will be expected to attend their funeral. His wife will call upon the widow, and after the conflict, so will he. If they're wounded he will vist them in the hospital and listen to them scream. He may have to watch them die.
No way is he giving a strange reporter that information.
Now if said reporter had been attached to his unit for a long time, enjoyed a good reputation, and was expected to continue with his unit the Captain might have displayed more candor, with the understanding that information would be used only after the operation. But the time to ask officers about an operation is after it happened. Then you'll probably get the answer you really want.
This kind of mistake is what happens when you toss a reporter used to civilian duties into a war zone. War is different, a type of organized madness with rules that are written in blood. If you were dropped into the headquarters of a brigade sized unit during an exercise you'd probably be confused, as messages are coming and going, and reports as well, often contradictory and arriving all the time. It takes training and experience to sort those things out.
A reporter entering this war zone has no excuse. We've known it was coming for a year, and these people should have prepared for it. First you need to read some military history. Read Company Commander by Charles MacDonald. The Face of Battle by John Keegan. Read anything by S.L.A. Marshall. And that's just the beginning. Get an idea of what's going to happen and the kind of decisions the fighting men face.
Then they should read some older, classic miltary reporting. Ernie Pyle ought to be required reading at every journalism school. Get an idea what the good reports really are about.
Ernie Pyle wouldn't have asked that overworked Captain when he was going to attack. He would have sought out the sergeants and privates, found out what was on their minds. Asked the sergeants how they intended to prepare their men for the shock of combat. Asked the privates about what they felt, about what they were doing and why it was important. If he saw a unit practicing disemplacing an artillery piece he might ask why it was so important to perform this task quickly. He would have learned something, and so would have his audience.
Watch the upcoming events carefully, but take some reports with a grain of salt. There are some good reporters out there, and some who are merely good looking.