- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

American viewers will never get the full and true picture of a U.S. war with Iraq. That at least is the assessment of formerCNN anchor Bernard Shaw.
"Nobody saw the whole picture in '91, and nobody will see the whole picture if there is a Gulf war again," Mr. Shaw says. "People forget that everybody censors in a war. The U.S., the Iraqis, the British, the Israelis. "
"You are only getting what the government wants you to get," Mr. Shaw said.
U.S. news operations, including Atlanta-based CNN, are preparing for the heavy expenses of war coverage. Those costs aren't likely to be offset by advertisers, some of whom yank commercials during traumatic times. CNN has set aside a $36 million contingency fund for possible war coverage.
But even with the heavy spending and assurances from news outfits that they will report aggressively, people who have followed past wars say Americans will get only an incomplete view of what is really happening. Early impressions of the fighting may be the least accurate and the most difficult untruths to dispel, they say.
Mr. Shaw says for his own needs he will be scouring different sources for information, and "it won't all come from television. It really bothers me that 75 percent of Americans get their news from television. It's an imperfect medium."
"You should listen and read and watch cautiously," Mr. Shaw said. Beware of "confusion, haste, propaganda, the outright use of the media."
During the Gulf war in 1991, the U.S. military tried to throw off the Iraqis by creating a false impression of where U.S. soldiers would first land, Mr. Shaw says.
"If I were president of the United States, you'd better damn well believe I'd use the media," he said. "There's no such thing as a fairly fought war. Anyone who thinks so is naive to the point of being dangerous."
And Mr. Shaw, who predicts American viewers "will be numbed by the saturation" of war coverage, said he doesn't dispute the military's need to limit information to avoid putting American soldiers at risk.
But that may not be the only reason governments tell untruths during war, says London-based TV correspondent Sheila MacVicar, who has covered more than a dozen wars and conflicts for Canadian network CBC, ABC News and, now, CNN.
"And it will be too easy to dismiss what comes from the other side as propaganda, and not all of it will be," she said.
In a war, the starting position of one side is always that the other side is lying, Miss MacVicar says. Or that negative eyewitness accounts such as deaths of civilians are wrong. The truth, she said, may only be ferreted out later.
Even overall images of the fighting may be wrong.
During the Gulf war, there were daily press briefings by the coalition forces.
"The picture that was given to us by those briefers was of a war being fought by high-tech weaponry," Miss MacVicar said.
Much later it became clear that the vast majority of bombs that fell were not "smart" bombs, she says, but "the old gravity bombs, that same dumb stuff that's been falling out of the airplanes for 50 years. It's stunning to learn something about the true nature of the war that had been concealed through all those briefings."
Reporters don't always ask the right questions, Miss MacVicar said. And sometimes they are suckered, even by civilians.
She cites a colleague who did a moving report focusing on a woman in Kosovo who said she became a fighter after witnessing Serbs murder her 9-year-old sister. Later, the reporter revisited the woman and found that her sister was still alive.
The woman told the reporter she had lied because: "You were looking for a story, and I gave you a story. And even if it didn't happen to me, it happened to others," according to Miss MacVicar. The reporter did a follow-up story.
Viewers should consider what is being used as a measure of success in a war, says Clarence Wyatt, an associate professor of history at Centre College in Danville, Ky., who wrote the book "Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War."
In Vietnam, war correspondents often focused on day-to-day tallies of bombings and casualties, and which side inflicted the most damage, Mr. Wyatt says. But the more important question, he said, was: "Who was willing to pay the bigger price? That was going to determine the outcome of the war."
War correspondents are often dependent on information they get from military officials, who often restrict their movement in war zones.
That holds true even with the Pentagon's stated plans to allow reporters to follow military units if there is a war in Iraq, Mr. Wyatt said.
Joshua Meyrowitz, a University of New Hampshire professor of media studies, said "the most critical time for a free press is before the war starts, when there ought to be the widest debate and access to the widest amount of information."
Americans should be careful about believing what they hear from pundits and analysts who offer their expertise during news shows, Mr. Meyrowitz said. Journalists, he says, could help viewers by rating the past accuracy of sources and pundits they use.
And the public should look for alternative sources of information, he said.
"Americans have to take what they see initially with a grain of salt and ask, 'Why are we being told this?' and 'What might be missing that would change the story?'" Mr. Meyrowitz said. "Citizens of a democracy have an obligation to do this."

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