The Message

The media's massive buildup to battle makes war seem almost anti-climactic.

As President George W. Bush prepares to launch his own variation on the Outkast hit "Bombs Over Baghdad" (key lyric: "Don't even bang unless you plan to hit something"), the mainstream media is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to report on the desert turmoil to come. No need to marshal forces. News organs of nearly every description have been ready for weeks, if not months, to provide readers, listeners and viewers with a constant flow of information about America's attempt to consign Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to history's garbage disposal.

Yet if the coverage to date is any indication, figuring out the essence of what's happening and why will be about as easy as convincing war protesters that giving peace a chance is highly overrated. Journalists and personalities all along the political spectrum have regularly engaged in enough spin on the topic to make Tara Lipinski dizzy. And considering today's media environment, which tends to value noisy confrontation over reasoned conversation, the chances of this situation changing for the better once the bullets start flying in earnest are slender indeed.

Not that every media enterprise rushing pencil-packing troops to the front lines is doing so for blatantly cynical reasons. Journalistic tenets about, among other things, the average citizen's right to know what's being done in his or her name are certainly hefty parts of the mix. But competition and public persona are factors, too. For instance, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, which may be putting more energy and resources into their Iraq efforts than they have for any past international conflict, have substantial incentive to enter the international-reporting fray. Post owner Dean Singleton has repeatedly stated that he wants his paper to be among the top dailies in the country, and one way to show that it's ready to play with the big boys is to establish a global presence. As for the News, the paper generally kept staffers close to home when it came to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, whereas the Post racked up plenty of frequent-flyer miles. Were the Rocky to largely stay out of the game again, it might send Colorado readers the message that it is a fine local paper, but the Post is far better when it comes to the tough stuff.

Issues like these remained in the background during a March 17 visit to KNRC radio by News managing editor Deb Goeken and Post national editor Michelle Fulcher, who spoke to host Greg Dobbs about their respective war plans. When Dobbs asked why they were bothering to do their own things when both papers subscribe to the New York Times and other syndication services with far more experience in military correspondence, they focused on their responsibility to share the latest happenings with area residents and their ability to dig out local angles that are likely to elude outsiders.

At the same time, Goeken and Fulcher noted that the U.S. government rules regarding coverage of the imminent carnage have cons as well as pros. They praised the decision to let outlets position journalists inside specific military units -- an action referred to for some strange reason as "embedding" -- but noted that the rules don't allow reporters and photographers from a given paper to be paired. As such, writers are being put in the position of taking snapshots, and shutterbugs with little or no writing experience may be pressed into penning their own accounts. Rocky photog Todd Heisler already has one byline under his belt, for a puffy piece about Seabees in Kuwait passing time during a day off. Won't be many of those for a while.

Another embedding problem cropped up after one journo each from the Post and the News wound up assigned to a group of Fort Carson soldiers who were slated for deployment to Turkey. Unfortunately for them, an aid-and-compensation package/bribe estimated at $30 billion wasn't enough to convince Turkey's leaders to let the division set up camp in their territory, stranding all concerned in Colorado. As a result, readers have been treated to Fort Carson-based stories like "Military Whips Up New, Improved MREs," a March 14 offering by the Post's Erin Emery that gushingly described field rations highlighted by "country captain chicken, beef enchilada, beef with mushroom, Jamaican pork chop" and "traditional favorites" like "beef stew, chili mac and spaghetti." War may be hell, but it sure is tasty!

Of course, stories aren't automatically more important just because they're rooted in foreign soil. Witness "Saddled With a Risky Ride," a page-one narrative from the Sunday, March 2, Post, in which reporter Jim Hughes, writing from Kuwait, explored the world of children who ride camels competitively; as Hughes put it succinctly, "These boys are professional camel jockeys." Since "camel jockey" is a familiar slur aimed at people of Arab descent, perhaps we should anticipate a Post offering about "towel heads" in the near future.

This isn't to minimize the challenges set before local reporters who went on combat duty before there was much combat. Such journalists have been required to grind out copy from overseas to justify the expense of sending them there -- something the Rocky's M.E. Sprengelmeyer has done quite well in a series of dispatches that are being sent around the country courtesy of the Scripps Howard news service. In a wry sketch dated March 15, Sprengelmeyer asked soldiers what they would name the Iraq dust-up, with suggestions including "Operation Round Two," "Operation Read My Lips" and, best of all, "Operation Groundhog Day." Charlie Brennan, Sprengelmeyer's colleague at the News, has generated some uncommonly honest dispatches as well, like a March 13 bull session in which a bored, grumpy soldier joked (one hopes), "We're the most likely division to produce the next Timothy McVeigh."

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