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Comparing American and British War Coverage

British reporting corraled facts and asked tough questions, while American press viewed the war as a chance to present an "exciting" story within narrow limits.
 
 
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Here in Belgrade, along just about every street, satellite dishes sprout. Many residents are watching and comparing American and British coverage of the Iraq war, as are untold millions around the world. And so am I. From my position, embedded in the Third Couch Division, I see news organizations placing themselves on a spectrum of objectivity, from a great deal to absolutely none at all.

Click. BBC: "Shells are falling within two kilometers of a port where ships arrived with humanitarian aid...the port was believed secure."... "[Citizens of Basra] are not really welcoming them. They're more weary than anything. [Coalition troops] are still men with guns in a foreign country." Click. Fox News: "What should people be thinking about as we head into the weekend?" the anchor asks a Fox military consultant, who replies: "That, aside from what the media says, the American people -- people in the heartland -- support our troops -- except for a few nuts." Anchor (laughing in agreement): "Thanks. Always a pleasure to talk to you."

In general, for the Brits, war coverage offers an opportunity to corral facts and to ask tough questions about hugely consequential events. For the Americans, it is a chance to present an "exciting" story within narrow limits. Compared with the BBC's studied neutrality, Fox (broadcasting globally its original stateside programming, complete with Brit Hume, Mort Kondracke et al.) comes across as a kind of Gong Show of propaganda. The result is a myopic vision of war that proves alternatively nerve-racking, boring or uplifting, but in the aggregate effectively sanitizes events and numbs the audience. Watching Fox, Serbs see a striking similarity to something in their own recent past: "Why, it's just like TV here under Milosevic!"

The privately owned Fox is actually more gung-ho in its support of the war than US government entities like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has filed many balanced dispatches. Fox anchors report everything Arabs do with an audible sneer, while treating every official US pronouncement, no matter how self-serving, as gospel.

It is said that 90 percent of viewer perceptions are based on visual stimuli, not actual content, and Fox certainly grasps this. When carrying the daily briefing from Centcom, Fox divides its screen. Only a small video window with sound is devoted to the briefing. In a larger window, context-less military activity unfolds, tanks fire and vehicles roll. In the upper left corner is Fox's omnipresent American flag, and at the bottom the news ticker, which further distracts from serious concentration or analysis.

Outside the United States, viewers are deprived of CNN's star studio personas, Aaron Brown, Bobbie Batista, et al. The CNN International crew, beaming from London and other locales, is generally more balanced and professional than their stateside compatriots. But CNN International still does poorly in conveying the horror of war or providing a persuasive sampling of world opinion.

There's also a huge skepticism gap. The American outfits bother little or not at all to frame the conflict in terms of the stated rationale: alleged weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties. On CNN, newsbar items scroll by announcing the discovery of possible weapons of mass destruction, only to unceremoniously cancel the claims later.

The British networks air far more footage of the situation inside places that coalition forces are attacking, providing a much better sense of what it is like to be a civilian caught up in the terror of the moment. SkyNews, like Fox, is owned by the jingoistic Rupert Murdoch, and like Fox, it exhibits unabashed support for the British troops it accompanies -- although without the embarrassingly aggressive, egregiously hostile tone of Fox.

Fox, and CNN to a lesser extent, seem in a hurry to brush off stories about problems, miscalculations, consequences: friendly fire, civilian casualties and the exposure of Iraqi civilians to Saddamite reprisals, all subjects extensively treated by the Europeans. By comparison, when the bodies of the first British casualties arrived back in England, Sky ran the caption, "None of 10 who returned were killed by enemy."

Generally, the fellows with the "credentials" on CNN and Fox, especially the "military experts," alternate between belaboring the yawningly obvious and exhibiting partisanship. "The goal of that bombing was to 'degrade' those targets," said one presumably well-paid former officer. BBC in particular, and SkyNews to a lesser extent, seem to encourage on-air anchors to ask reasonably tough questions and give time to smart, savvy, blunt civilian analysts.

Click. SkyNews: Voiceover commentary from a London-based Iraqi dissident who, while eager to see Saddam Hussein vanquished, is deeply disturbed by the carnage being unleashed: "You cannot put in place a democratic government," he says. "That's an oxymoron. A democracy has to be built up gradually according to the culture of a place."

When it comes to presenting the "Arab" side of the conflict, US networks favor footage of Iraqi officials looking ridiculous and making clearly incredible statements. On the BBC, an Arab affairs specialist comments on shifting perceptions in the greater Arab world, how he is seeing anti-Saddam moderates suddenly rooting for the dictator and what this might portend for the United States in the long run. This is followed by a brief, informative history of the Kurds. The BBC even does a better job of airing the views of thoughtful American critics of the war, including a Washington-based human rights advocate worried about the effects of cluster bombs on civilian populations.

Of all the news channels available here, my personal favorite is the multilingual, pan-European independent news channel, Euronews. Its coverage of the war in Iraq has no marketing-department spin; it is simply labeled "The War in Iraq." We see no correspondents or anchors. We don't even know the names of those who offer the rigorously neutral narration over the raw-edged footage. Euronews also runs a feature called "No Comment," in which footage from inside and outside Iraq, collected from a wide variety of sources, airs without any narration or commentary at all. Guess which news show consistently provides the best insight and emotional comprehension of unfolding events? No comment.