Media miscalculates in its war coverage

Posted: Mar 26, 2003 12:00 AM

I woke up this morning to hear "Today" host Katie Couric explain to her millions of viewers that Pentagon officials had terribly "miscalculated" in their plan to topple Saddam.

Recall that it was Couric who once declared of a news story, "When I got this assignment, I thought, `Whoa, slow news day!' But the importance of the sports bra to American women can't be overemphasized."

Now, I haven't completely nailed this down yet, but my sources at the Pentagon tell me that if you've ever said, "the importance of the sports bra to American women can't be overemphasized," you are disqualified from ever pronouncing on military policy.

To be fair, Couric is hardly alone. Ever since the first "bad day" for America on Sunday, March 23, the media has been shocked that the enemy actually fired back.

The 300-mile coalition advance to the outskirts of Baghdad in not even five days of ground war was arguably the fastest in military history. Certainly, it was much faster than the advance in the first Gulf War, which had more than a month of aerial bombardment to pave the way.

In that time, coalition forces secured all of Iraq's southern oil fields. The 500 oil well fires many feared were contained to less than a dozen. The massive oil spill into the Gulf, planned by Saddam, was foiled. The missile launchers in Western Iraq, which could have ignited a disastrous war with Israel, were taken out of commission.

Strategically vital cities, including Umm Qasr and Basra were contained or captured. Missile launches into Kuwait were thwarted by Patriot missile batteries with stunning precision. Numerous bridges and roads were secured.

There is every reason to believe that we are killing at least 100 enemy soldiers for one American life lost. Thousands of precision-guided bombs were sent into Baghdad -attacks so accurate that even the Iraqis set civilian casualties at around 200. And we did all of this without the strategic benefit of a northern front (thanks a lot, Turkey), which Pentagon planners had counted on in their original plans.

Now imagine if Gen. Tommy Franks had said on Friday that we were going to accomplish all of these things by Tuesday.

And yet, the press seems fixated by American casualties and POWs. Don't get me wrong. Every American life is precious. But can we at least acknowledge that 39 deaths (as of this writing) among a force of 250,000 ,while attacking an entrenched and brutal enemy in a police state that has had at least a year to prepare and while gaining 300 miles in the process is pretty amazing? I mean, am I missing something?

And yet the war coverage has been decidedly gloomy this week. Even as the Shiites were hitting the fan in Basra, attacking their Baathist overlords, the Pentagon and White House press corps were berating Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials about how bad things were going. The Washington Post has already run a front-page story about how the current plan may be a terrible mistake. This stuff is all over the place.

For example, the majority of war headlines at and on Tuesday afternoon made it sound as if we might be losing another Vietnam. From ABC: "Glorious Fight: Some Arabs Feel Pride Over Saddam's Successes Against United States." "War's Economic Impact: The Prospect of a Long War Threatens the Economy's Health." "Bush Won't Predict Duration of Iraq War." "Urban Warfare in Baghdad Promises Peril." And so on. Over at MSNBC: "Casualties Grow as Troops Head North"; "U.S. Fails to Persuade Turkey on Iraq"; "War Sinks Consumer Confidence."

On television, I've heard constant references to being "bogged down" and even being in a "quagmire." If moving the Marines and the 101st Airborne to the gates of Baghdad in less than a week is a quagmire, then press treatment of total victory will sound like Iraq's Republican Guard just seized Philadelphia.

Don't get me wrong. This is not necessarily a complaint about liberal media bias, although I think there's some to be found. After all, even conservative Fox News got the blues more than once this week. What this is really about is the press being, well, the press.

Journalists, by training and disposition, do not look for the government to do things right -especially Republican governments -during a war. Also, television news, particularly cable news, emphasizes the emotional small pictures over the impersonal big pictures. Hence, countless heart-wrenching interviews with pained and grieving families.

We've been here before. The Tet Offensive, for example, was a huge military victory in every sense but one: It convinced Walter Cronkite and the American press that Vietnam was "unwinnable."

We're nowhere close to that yet, but we need to remind ourselves -and the government needs to do a better job of reminding the press -that we are not merely winning the war, but we are witnessing -so far -a historic military achievement in a good and noble cause. And win it we shall. There's no miscalculating about that.