Media shortcomings

Posted: Oct 25, 2001 12:00 AM
Rick Dunham is a journalist who knows all about being thrust into impossible situations. Now a steady hand at Business Week, 11 years ago Dunham was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald when hostilities broke out with Iraq and he was sent to Washington, D.C., to report from the Pentagon. Dunham had been on this beat for several weeks when I invited him out for a drink one evening to give him a break from his endless days covering the growing Allied military build-up. He looked harried. I asked how he was holding up, and he smiled bemusedly. "One day I'm covering Dallas City Council races, the next day I'm covering Patriot missile defense systems." I asked him how well he knew the subject matter. "Oh, about as well as the other 10,000 reporters over there," he laughed. I think about that conversation as I ponder what it might be like to be a reporter covering the war in Afghanistan. I suspect there are less than a dozen journalists who can be said to be true experts in this field; the other 10,000, like Dunham 11 years ago, are being asked to become instant veterans about a country and a conflict about which they know next to nothing. For the on-air reporter it brings one set of problems. They must not only act like they know the subject matter, they must (SET ITAL) sound (END ITAL) like they do. Overnight they must master impossible names of cities and towns they never knew existed. Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i Sharif, Peshawar -- before 9/11 these reporters couldn't have found these cities with laser-guided missiles. What about names of people and organizations? There are no Smiths and Joneses in this part of the world. Most assuredly we're familiar with Osama bin Laden. Some might correctly identify Pervez Musharraf as the ruler of Pakistan. But who the hell is Qazi Hussein Ahmed, and what the hell is the party he leads, Jamaat-I-Islami? If you're a television reporter with eight minutes before airtime to figure it out, you simply assume he's probably a bad guy and spend your allotted time perfecting your affected Arabic accent to make it all come out correctly on the first read of the teleprompter. If you're a print reporter with columns of type to fill giving comprehensive coverage to the issue, the problem is even more daunting. You have to actually know what you're talking about. It's in that vein that I recall some of the coverage during the Gulf War of 1991 when circumstances were so similar, and how some reporters just ... well, let's just say they would rather no one remember what it is they reported. They blew it because some of these armchair generalissimos apparently believed they actually knew what it was they were talking about. I remember the issue of U.S. News shortly before the fighting began. It predicted oh-so-assuredly that the coming war would sound the death knell for Ronald Reagan's vaunted SDI program with the pending defeat of the Patriot missile defense system, which carries critical technology for SDI development. Why would the Patriot lose? Easy. You see, the Iraqi Scud missile is mobile, while the Patriot is stationary. The Scuds, as a result, would take out the Patriots, and bye-bye SDI daydreams. The reality, as the whole world saw two months later, was just the opposite. There were many reporters covering the Gulf War whose analyses of the situation earned them some sort of Mindless Prognostication Award. On the eve of the ground war offensive, seemingly everyone knew how it was going to go, except no one had a clue about General Schwarzkopf's brilliant flanking maneuver, which would take only days to utterly demolish Saddam Hussein's entire army. I'll bet you Time magazine's George Church would sacrifice his favorite laptop to take back the words he wrote just days before the Allied offensive. "Remember all that chatter about a short war? Well, forget it." And I warrant the Washington Post would give anything to erase from the annals of history their headline two weeks before what was clearly one of the most smashingly successful military campaigns in history: "War Highlights Shortcomings of U.S. Forces." Hopefully these reporters will get it right this time, and the war on terrorism won't once more highlight the shortcomings of the U.S. media.