The American Media and Wartime Challenges

Report by Carolyn Pumphrey

The following presentations are available in full here: Grossman Hallin Neff Pillar

At 9:34 PM EST on 19 March, 2003 United States and United Kingdom forces went to war against Iraq. In the twenty-two day campaign that followed, unprecedented battlefield access was granted to embedded journalists. This new and controversial policy highlighted the serious professional responsibility borne by the media. The TISS conference on “The American Media and Wartime Challenges,” which was held at the Friday Center, Chapel Hill on March 21 and March 22 was, therefore, particularly timely. Several of our scheduled speakers were called away by other duties, notably Colin Soloway, embedded with the 181st Airborne. He was scheduled to speak to us via satellite from Kuwait. But at the very moment when he was due to appear, he was riding into Iraq in a Humvee with the ground assault command. Despite these setbacks, the conference brought together an impressive group of speakers whose diverse education and experience shed considerable light on the complex issues at hand.

The conference opened with an attempt to put key issues into historical perspective. The first speaker challenged the assumption that the media has the power to affect the outcome of wars. Daniel Hallin, Professor of Communication at the University of California at San Diego noted that conventional wisdom has long held that, for better or worse, the media played a decisive role in turning the public against the war in Vietnam. In fact, they followed rather than led public opinion, their views reflecting divisions in the policy-making community and shifts in morale of American troops. Carol Winkler, Professor of Communications at Georgia State University examined the ultimatum delivered by President Bush to Saddam Hussein on 17 March,  2003. She argued that the speech was written in such a way as to reaffirm the public diplomacy strategies of Republican Presidents since the Vietnam War. Thomas Lansner of the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and the School of Journalism provided the audience with a brief survey of the evolution of war reporting in the twentieth century.   Some things have changed, most notably technology, which has given us increasingly smaller, lighter, faster, and more powerful means of communication. Much, however,  remains the same. War correspondents still report mainly on wars of immediate interest to their nations and their understanding is obscured by the fog of war. Reporting still tends to be informed by patriotism and colored by ownership. Finally, everybody lies in war: anyone who does not accept and understand this is self-deluded.

Continuing this theme, the next three speakers embarked on a lively discussion of the problems of “finding and telling the truth.”  Cori Dauber, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argued that the prestige media – the Washington Post, the New York Times and the three network nightly news channels –  have a liberal bias, especially visible in the way they frame issues. Military coverage, in particular, tends to be anti-war. She ended with an impassioned plea. Stories of heroism in combat are no more fraudulent than any others and should be aired.  Our second speaker, Joseph Neff, a reporter from the Raleigh News and Observer analyzed the difficulties facing those covering war and military affairs.  Newspapers are imperfect institutions, publishing on the fly, with imperfect information, imperfectly cited. Sometimes reporters are thwarted because others deny them access.  At other times, they themselves miss meaningful stories, neglecting, for example, news about the poor equipment of “ground-pounders” and reporting instead on dazzling new technologies. Robert Lichter, President of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an organization which does content analysis studies of media coverage, stressed that determining bias is difficult. Analysts must cope with a plethora of information and coding difficulties. Determining the line between bias and a fair-minded effort to offer a “different” perspective is not easy.  It is a lot harder to “think” than to “feel” about bias in the media, hence the importance of amassing hard evidence.

Inadequate coverage of national security issues is a serious concern, often  linked to economics. The third panel addressed this problem. James Hamilton, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University analyzed the market for war coverage.  What really gets produced, he said, answers five economic questions: Who cares about a particular piece of information? What are consumers willing to pay to find information or are others willing to pay to reach those people?  Where can media outlets or advertisers reach people?  When is it profitable to provide information, and why is it profitable?  Lawrence Grossman, former President of NBC News, conceded that war reporting can be expensive though the biggest cost comes from declining advertising revenues. The media cannot tastefully position their perky, chirpy, frivolous commercials next to tough-to-take war footage. At the same time, he noted, war provides substantial economic offsets and rewards for news organizations. News is basically about bad things that happen to people. Thus war builds news audiences and raises the circulation of newspapers and news magazines. Scott Deatherage, a noted debate-coach at Northwestern University, observed that journalists, broadcasters and media decision-makers follow a time-honored and time-failed soft-news format. Though they do so to hold on to shrinking audiences and to satisfy advertisers, public opinion data suggests that news consumers are interested in hard news coverage of the pressing issues of our time. Even were this not true, however, the media have a responsibility to provide consistent, quality coverage in a time of war. We depend upon them to give us a reliable version of emerging national security events.

The fourth panel developed the concerns discussed by Mr. Deatherage, addressing head on the issue of media influence on public opinion and the impact of public opinion on foreign policy. Paul Pillar, a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, stressed the need for the media to be a partner in the struggle against terrorism. The media should remember that sympathy and support for terrorists is directly tied to the attitudes, the perceptions, and the outlooks of foreign publics. On the domestic front, the media must help sustain interest in the counterterrorism effort and help the public better understand the nature of a complex threat. Robert Entman, Communication, North Carolina State University, argued in favor of developing a more complex model to explain the interaction of the media, the public, and the government. He noted that, in today’s complicated international environment, the media is neither entirely watchdog nor entirely lapdog of the White House. Public opinion is the captive of the media only when coverage is entirely one-sided and this happens relatively rarely. Moreover, in times of crisis, one-sided coverage may be desired (for ebber or for worse) as much as by the public as by the White House. The last speaker on the panel reminded us that we must always consider public skills and attitudes.  Ellen Mickiewicz, De Witt Wallace Center for Communication and Journalism, Duke University, showed that surprisingly, and a bit disconcertingly, the Russian public appears to be able to make reasonably solid political decisions, despite being presented with limited and biased information.

The fifth panel explored the relationship between the military and the media. James Der Derian, International Relations, Amherst, argued that the modern media has a unique, almost incestuous relationship with the military. The military relies increasingly on the media to win the hearts and minds of domestic and sometimes foreign publics. The speed of our communication networks has given our military improved ability to command, control, and conduct surveillance. Media technology, moreover,  has enabled the military to train for war using simulations and war-games. This has increased our efficiency but at the same time it has blurred the lines between game and reality, and hidden from us the human cost of war. It has confirmed us in our belief that we are fighting “Virtuous Wars” – both clean and righteous – and this in turn has led to an increased willingness on our part to resort to the use of force. Cori Dauber focused on the damage done by ignorance. There are relatively few reporters outside the Press Corps who have studied war or had military experience. As a result, in times of war, media outlets have no surge capacity. The lessons that many journalists bring away from Journalism School is that 1) the Pentagon can do no right and 2) the troops can do no wrong. When this is combined with lax standards, the media can do real damage. In reporting on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for example, leading dailies cited, without checking, wildly exaggerated figures supplied by a New Hampshire Professor – very adversely affecting public perception of the American war effort. General Robert W. Bazley, USAF (Ret) who graciously stepped in to replace  General Bernard Trainor, agreed that the lack of experience and training of reporters had been a source of worry to him during his years as an operational commander. He added that the policy of embedding seemed to him to be a very constructive one. It would doubtless offer great learning opportunities to the journalists.

The final panel focused on the problem of how to balance freedom of the press with national security interests. Mohammed el-Nawawy, Assistant Professor of Communication at Stonehill College and former reporter for the Associated Press in Cairo, provided a thought-provoking look at the dilemmas posed by Al-Jazeera. He conceded that the network is widely viewed by Americans as a source of “propaganda.” He argued, however, that it is creating “liberty” in the Arab world by sparking public debate. American officials should use it because it is trusted by Arabs. They should, however, pay more attention to their audience. Arabs, for example, are convinced not by detachment (which they see as deception) but by eloquence. Like el-Nawawy, Judith Miller, former General Counsel to the Department of Defense, emphasized the value of our basic freedoms. Security in wartime is important but controlling the media and restricting public access to websites and information may be counterproductive. It hamstrings us as well as our enemy and may thus not only undermine our rights but reduce our security. The conference ended with a broad look at how the changing information environment may affect the military, the media, and our democratic society. Jorge Reina Schement, Department of Telecommuncations, Penn State University, noted that private homes have increasingly gone from being castles to being nodes on networks. Because there is so much information and because people are picking and choosing in rather random ways what to look at, there is a radical decline in commonly experienced information and commonly mediated messages. Increasingly we cannot predict how Americans use information and how they react to it. This is going to make the challenge for the media in wartime all the greater in the future.


The Triangle Institute for Security Studies wishes to express very warm thanks to Janice Engelhardt, Canadian Studies (Duke University) and Kevin Byrne (History) Gustavus Adolfus, for their assistance in transcribing and editing several of the above presentations. Their volunteer efforts helped to bring this project closer to completion.