War puts broadcast media in spotlight

By Mark McGowan

When something makes news, people turn to the media. The broadcast media are able to bring live action from anywhere in the world into the living rooms and kitchens of America. Most often, it’s sports. Sometimes, it’s hard news. Sometimes, it’s war.

As the U.S. air attack began in January, Americans were right there. From CNN’s Peter Arnett hiding underneath a desk to NBC’s Arthur Kent watching Scuds fly from the rooftop, the war was an unfolding drama without a script. There was no dress rehearsal.

Journalism instructor Richard Digby-Junger, who worked in the broadcast media, said the urgency of the message made news directors lose control over the content. “It’s very scary,” he said.

“The Gulf War was sanitized,” he said. “Vietnam was the first living room war. Sometimes there was a lag of a couple of hours but you saw the picture at supper.”

Digby-Junger said broadcasts from the Gulf almost weren’t news but the process of gathering news, as viewers became witnesses to military briefings and press questions.

Paul Freifeld, news director of Rockford NBC-affiliate WTVO, said the coverage was more intensive because of improved technology. “That was live,” he said. “That was actually happening.”

The U.S. government had tight controls on the press during the Persian Gulf, a change from Vietnam. Last year, “there were no pictures of dead Americans,” Digby-Junger said.

“My biggest problem was with the U.S. government,” Freifeld said. “They put such tight limitations down that the coverage was incomplete. The U.S. wanted the coverage to look positive.”

Still, the amount of news flowing from the Gulf was enormous and TV threw normal programming out the window. “During the first few days of the war, people wanted it,” Freifeld said. “The big three (networks) stopped doing that after a few days and just broke in with announcements.”

Also, broadcasting news is far less expensive, Digby-Junger said. Putting a camera in front of a news event or a reporter costs nothing when compared to running programs like “The Simpsons” or soap operas, he said.

While the Gulf War might have seemed like the first time news presented so much and so often, Digby-Junger said the McCarthy hearings in the 50s were the first, though poorly-watched. However, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 brought live coverage to the forefront.

“(Live action) is the cornerstone of broadcast journalism,” Freifeld said.

He said he admired the courage of the correspondents reporting from the Gulf, comparing many of them to Edward R. Murrow and his rooftop news reports from London during World War II. “Do I think it’s right? I think it’s inevitable,” he said.

Subsequent heavy news broadcasts of President Bush’s heart murmur and the lengthy Clarence Thomas hearings would have run “had the Gulf War never happened,” he said.

The winner of the TV news race during the war was CNN. “The Gulf War made the public know about CNN,” Digby-Junger said.

But it also pointed out its weakness—that news from the war wasn’t under control and time had to be filled. “For them, news is a commodity,” he said.

Networks stalled with analysts and almost any retired military leader was hired, Digby-Junger said. “They provided a check on the free-flow of news,” he said. “A lot of them were good, a lot of them were stupid.”

Providing analysis was necessary for networks because they couldn’t compete with CNN’s live spectacle, a problem newspapers once had with the networks. Digby-Junger said he thinks the media needs to interpret the news but said most readers and viewers don’t pay attention.

However, broadcasters hoped most people did look their way. “The more you see of war, the less likely you are to fight one,” Digby-Junger said. “Personally, I could’ve lived without” so much coverage, he said.

For Freifeld, the mission still is clear. “People do turn to TV news in times of crisis,” he said. “That’s good for us.”