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Press coverage of war
4.04.03
Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Greg Mitchell
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Transcript

BILL MOYERS: We're devoting this entire broadcast to media issues. And we begin with thoughts of journalism and the war. With me is Greg Mitchell, the editor of the weekly national magazine, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, which many of us consider the Bible of the newspaper business. Greg Mitchell is co-author with Robert J. Lifton of these two acclaimed books: WHO OWNS DEATH and HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA. His own books, you can learn more about them on pbs.org, have won several awards in their own right. Welcome to NOW.

GREG MITCHELL: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Your own publication, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, did some of the first reporting about embedded journalists.

GREG MITCHELL: Right.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think about how that is working? And is it good for journalism?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, we've seen some very dramatic examples just this week of-- some of the positive aspects of it. There was the-- checkpoint-- shootings that-- were reported at first by the Pentagon-- that the-- there had been many warning shots given and that--

BILL MOYERS: This is when the civilians came through the checkpoint in a van?

GREG MITCHELL: Right. And the first military reports were that-- they had received many warnings, ample warnings over and over. There happened to be a WASHINGTON POST reporter embedded at the scene. And he reported the truth which was basically that-- the warnings were not that extensive.

And that the US-- commander at the scene had yelled at his own forces afterwards. And they had not given enough warning. And so one wonders if there had not been an embedded reporter there what would have come out about that? On the other hand, the embedded reporters-- often seem a little too rah-rah. They-- you know-- they-- there has been very little censorship, I have to say, outright censorship. But one worries about self-censorship. About their worries of being kicked out-- if they report something that the military doesn't want them to report.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the public knows that the reporters who are embedded had to sign a contract with the Pentagon in order to be accepted for this role? That they had to agree to play by the-- by the rules?

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well-- I-- a good question whether they know but also whether they care. I think-- as we found in polls-- over the years, that the American people-- large numbers of them don't even quite agree with freedom of the press completely--

GREG MITCHELL: They believe that-- there should be all sorts of restrictions. And, of course, everyone agrees that in war time there should be more restrictions. But the question is-- you know-- to what degree? And-- we've seen-- in our interviews with editors in the past couple weeks, many-- cases of editors getting a lot of-- mail from readers who are upset about the-- you know-- about their coverage. And-- it's-- it shows that the people have a really different view about what the rights and the responsibilities of the press are.

BILL MOYERS: I saw your story about-- the USA TODAY the other day. I've been reading USA TODAY, I think it's doing a good job too. But the editor of USA TODAY got in trouble for this photograph, didn't he?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, they ran a photograph of some dead Iraqi soldiers on the front page. And a large number of readers-- they told us complained because on the same day they ran a photo inside of a US soldier surrounded by happy Iraqi children. And so these people-- were saying, "Why wasn't that photo on the front page instead of the dead Iraqi soldiers?"

And the executive editor of USA TODAY told us that yeah, the reason was simple. It was a day of great bloodshed. One of those days of great pessimism. And he thought it would have been inappropriate and misleading to show this happy photo on the front page. So he went with the more grim-- the grim photo.

Another example I'll give you, the DALLAS MORNING NEWS editor told us that they've gotten a lot of complaints for showing dead civilians or damaged civilians of Iraqis on the on the front page. And he says that it's viewed by the readers as an anti-war statement. You know, it's even showing the casualties on the other side is an anti-war statement. And you know that really goes against, again, all the principles of press coverage that we believe in which is, you know, showing what is happening. And- letting the people deal with it as, you know, as they can.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You said to a colleague of mine that you thought this photograph on the front page of the New York Times will become the most famous one to emerge from this war. Why is that?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, it shows an American soldier comforting a Iraqi child. It's a very-- I guess the reason it's so interesting is it's-- ambiguous. Some people will read into it the compassionate American who is really the you know-- the person that they will focus on.

Other people will focus on the child or-- the caption which indicated that her mother had just been killed in a fire fight. So, it has that kind of ambiguity. You can take it as an anti-war photo because of what it shows. Or you could take it as a very pro-war, Americans are trying to save them. So it's-- I think it will be one of the lasting photos from this-- campaign.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that journalists can be objective about what they're reporting when they are alongside the troops who are protecting them as they move forward?

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, I think that's one of the problems. These reporters have been living with these troops. Reporting with them, getting to know them. And that, of course, that's all terrific. You know, no one could really be against that.

But-- in practice, it could-- modify or-- adjust what they report about the actions. If the war is over quickly, it will have probably less impact than it might have. If this war does drag on-- in a long siege of Baghdad-- there will probably be some very, very bad-- bad moments out there. And-- one wonders-- how much these reporters who have-- who have bonded so much with the-- with the troops will be able to honestly report.

One of the problems in this whole campaign has been that originally we were told that the embedded reporters would only make up maybe half of the reporters who would be covering the conflict. The rest would be independent. But what's happened is because of the dangers over there-- almost all the reporters are the embedded reporters. So there's very few free-roaming reporters who can report without any restrictions whatsoever. But the problem is that the commentators on TV-- have almost from the beginning adopted a "we" attitude. They-- they now are reporting, "We are advancing. We are taking fire. We are taking prisoners."

So there's-- all objectivity has been dropped. And, as human beings, I think we could agree it's understandable in this situation. But, as journalists, it's not the best situation where commentators, anchormen-- reporters in the field, are talking about this as a "we" rather than a US-- you know-- the US mission, the US soldiers.

BILL MOYERS: Fox News has become the cheerleader for the government. What does it do to other news organizations when-- when Fox proves that jingoism is more popular than journalism?

GREG MITCHELL: I think the problem with that is that a lot of the other-- particularly the cable news networks have-- felt that they have to keep up with that. I think there's a certain competition to show that they're not soft on the war.

That-- they have-- any less patriotism than Fox. And we've seen it in-- just this morning. I saw an interview on CNN with the-- an Australian woman who had been in Baghdad and had just left. And the woman kept saying that, you know, she was amazed how much the Iraqi people, although they may not like Saddam Hussein-- were very angry about the bombings.

Many of their children had been injured or killed-- angry at the US because of the bombings. And the-- person who was the interviewer back in the US asked her one aggressive question after another. After he finished talking to her, he then sort of editorialized on the air saying-- "Well, we've talked to countless people who say that the Iraqi civilians will welcome with open arms the American soldiers."

Now that may or may not be true. But the point is that even the-- one of the rare kind of dissenting or-- contrary opinions that was expressed, the anchor felt he had to then jump in and editorialize saying, "You can disregard what this woman said. You know, we have other information."

And-- again, I think the point is, is that no matter how you feel about the war, no matter how you feel about the way it's being conducted or what's gonna happen-- you know-- I think it's a bi-partisan issue that the press should-- should report straight down the line. You know, let the people see all sides. Let the people get all the information as quickly as they can. And-- you know-- let the chips fall where they may. And not editorialize everything that has to do with-- the war.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote a very strong story-- a few days ago in Editor and Publisher about how the press had bungled some 14 or 15 important stories. How do you feel about the way-- what do you think about now the way-- the view of the war we're getting from journalists?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, I-- again, I'm-- afraid that the in the rush to be first with something and the rush to declare a victory-- they let the story get ahead of the facts. You know, they-- the four different times they reported based on the military statements that-- Umm Qsar had been taken. You know, Basrah is-- was-- has been taken two or three times. And as far as I know, it still hasn't been taken.

And what I'm afraid is that-- we may be entering another period now where the reports are overly optimistic. I heard reports yesterday on television one after another talking about next week-- there's gonna be a-- new government installed. That-- we-- we'll probably be in-- the middle of Baghdad by then. And that there'll only be pockets of resistance remaining in the country. So I'm a little afraid now, again, people are getting their expectations raised-- only for a-- for a fall. And-- I think that's the danger that the journalists and the military collaborate on.

BILL MOYERS: What concerns you about what's not being covered?

GREG MITCHELL: My complaint is with the cable news networks that are on 24/7 and yet have found virtually no time to interview psychologists and theologians and other observers who could talk about what this is doing to us what this is doing to us as a country.

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is the thing that's different about your business of print and my business of television is that there's a built-in dynamic. Let me just show you the logos, the images that the networks hurl at us every time they come to the coverage of the war. Look at this and tell me what you think after we watch it.

BILL MOYERS: What does that-- can you be a-- what does that say to you about the mixing of images and journalism?

GREG MITCHELL: I think it's unfortunate just because of the tone it sets for the entire coverage. You know, this is serious business. Everyone-- everyone agrees. The war is-- you know-- is not a video game.

Certainly the soldiers don't feel that out there. And-- you know-- and the people shouldn't feel that because there's real destruction at the other end.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see as much cheerleading in-- the print press as you do on television?

GREG MITCHELL: No, I think the print press-- has played it more straight down the line. They've had a more variety of stories. They have had reports from-- more reports from Baghdad itself. More reports on what-- people are saying around the world.

More reports on protests pro and con about the war. More range of editorial opinions. So I think the print press and newspapers have-- done a much better job, a more reflective job--

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, well-- you know I have watched this-- and I've watched this pretty carefully the last couple weeks. Time after time, there-- there's a report that comes out of the Pentagon or from the field or something. And it shows up on a respected Web site. It's reduced to a brief paragraph. Then it gets reduced further to a headline. Then it gets reduced further to a link on a Web site.

And then it gets reported on TV briefly. And then it gets reduced to the crawl. I mean, it feels like this is the crawl-ization of news in this war. Because complex, nuanced, unconfirmed reports are reduced to eight word statements on a crawl. So I think it's a real-- the-- -- mentality has become not only shifted to sound bites but even word bites.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is stake for democracy and how we journalists cover this war?

GREG MITCHELL: Obviously, there are great-- always be restrictions in war time. But-- you know-- Edward R. Murrow had a quote-- on his wall in his office from Thoreau in which he said, "Speak the truth. You need two people. One to speak it and one to hear it."

And-- I think that sums up the-- relationship not only between the military and the press but the press and the American people. You know, the press often is reporting factual matters. And the public sometimes turns away from it. We entered this war, with upwards of half the people in the country believing that-- Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack.

Now, that's of enough importance in terms of-- support for the war. Now, how did that happen?

Was that the media's fault? Was it the government's fault for putting out the stories? Or is the public sometimes not receptive so that the-- media can expose things. The media can paint a complex picture.

And the public wants to believe what the public wants to believe.

BILL MOYERS: Last question. Do you have a sense that when the battle is over, this story's only begun?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, certainly the stories, as a journalist, have only begun. I don't think-- most Americans understand that this is gonna be something that's with us for years and decades and I'm not sure we get a sense of that from the coverage which seems to be oriented towards next week or next month, battle will be over. And-- the boys will start to come home. And there'll just be a glorious episode in our past rather than something that's just the beginning of this story. We're really at the beginning of the story of the US and Iraq and the 21st century.

BILL MOYERS: Greg Mitchell from EDITOR AND PUBLISHER. Thank you for joining us on NOW.

GREG MITCHELL: Happy to be here.


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