Like most Americans, I have been glued to my TV, watching the war in Iraq. My channel of choice has been CNN. After a while, I began to notice a name I hadn’t heard before: Walter Rodgers.
There it was again. Walter Rodgers. I wondered whether this was a general, or a strategist, or maybe a soldier exhibiting great bravery, given that his name
— Walter Rodgers! Walter Rodgers! — was being tossed about with unabashed worship.
Well, it turns out Walter Rodgers works for CNN. He is a reporter — one of 500 or so embedded journalists in this conflict — given access to ride alongside the U.S. 7th Cavalry.
Anchor after anchor extolled his reports. “Never before have we seen such images!” they cooed, even though the images were just tanks rolling through dirt.
Paula Zahn, the morning host, reran a clip of one of Walter Rodgers’ reports, during which an explosion took place in the distance. No one was hurt, but the broadcast was interrupted as Rodgers — and those around him — asked a pretty common war question: “What was that?”
When the clip ended, Zahn looked at the camera and said, “Wow.”
She neglected to mention that the report was old, more than a day old, and that rerunning it was nothing short of gratuitous, to show folks how impressive — and brave! — CNN was.
“So far,” one anchor actually said, Walter Rodgers and the photos from his crew have been “the star and the story of this war.”
Reporters are not stars
I thought the stars and the story of this war were the soldiers. And the intelligence folks who found Saddam Hussein’s bunker. And the bravery of the families waiting at home.
Reporters are not stars. And photographs are not the story. But then, to hear some of these networks tell it — and CNN is not alone here — you actually would think that nothing like this had happened before.
Sadly, if the TV folks did a little more reading and a little less watching one another’s feeds, they might realize how wrong they are.
They might learn that 150 years ago, using horseback messengers and steamboats, a small group of reporters got dispatches back during the Mexican-American War.
They might learn that correspondents were part of the Civil War in the 1860s, right in there with the soldiers. And that in World War I, reporters sneaked in lightweight cameras and published photographs from the war fronts — against the wishes of the military.
They might learn the name Ernie Pyle, who wrote from World War II foxholes and told stories of real soldiers, homesick and washing socks in their helmets. As for the “bravery” boasts of the cable TV ride-alongs, they might note that Pyle was killed by snipers’ bullets as he joined troops on an island in the Pacific.
Remember Murrow on rooftops
They might remember Edward R. Murrow on the London rooftops, or that Korean War correspondents were shot at as they rode in transports. They might recall the TV reporting during Vietnam — not just morale-boosting images, but gruesome depictions of war. They might learn that female journalists from that country put themselves in the action, carrying backpacks and sleeping in trenches, to file stories.
Sadly, there seems to be no perspective or sense of history from many cable newspeople — at least not beyond the last Persian Gulf War, perhaps because they are too young to remember any other conflict.
The only thing new about today’s coverage is technology. As for this wonderful new access, well, a good journalist learns to be skeptical of anything given too freely. It is not cynical to suggest that capturing pictures of one-sided victories and cheering Iraqis is good for the U.S. and the military. There’s a reason this embedding was permitted — especially from an administration that is otherwise so close to the vest.
Then again, saying this would require some perspective. And that’s hard to find when you’re busy patting yourself on the back.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.