War in the time of video
Special to The Times
The professional journalist has become an endangered species, threatened by new technologies for the capture and distribution of digital video.
The demise of traditional journalism will shape the way we perceive world events and comes at a critical time for American foreign policy, when we need to make quality decisions based on an assessment of complex situations in the Near East and other hot spots around the world.
Many of us have become so immersed in the rapid-fire culture of Internet video distribution that we forget why reporters and editors matter.
When I worked for Walter Cronkite of CBS News in the early 1980s, the senior news producers gathered each morning over their sweet rolls and coffee to determine where to send reporters that day. Every "Evening News" broadcast benefited from extensive fact-checking, research, balancing of interviews from a variety of sources, and the expertise of an editorial team that carefully considered the context of each story and where it fit in the "big picture" of news from around the world.
"Truth," as Winston Churchill opined, "is the first casualty of war," but traditional news outlets provide editors and publishers to act as filters to take in raw data and create a finished product before it is passed through to public eyes.
Now, with the advent of YouTube and self-publishing Web sites, every video upload is presented as having equal weight. Some video producers have a clear political ax to grind. Others seek to capitalize on a disturbing image, without revealing who took the picture or whether the incident might have been staged.
Finally, context counts. It's impossible to make sense of a random explosion in a civilian shopping market without first understanding the nature of the conflict and its history.
Iraq is proving to be a particularly difficult war to cover, because advances in technology leave virtually no time for news reporting or analysis. American infantry units travel with embedded reporters who mount satellite-linked video cameras on M-88 tank-recovery vehicles. We get to follow random units with the immediacy of a war movie, but don't get a sense of how the overall battle is progressing or why the enemy might have melted into the countryside in order to fight another day.
In fact, the glowing images of "Mission Accomplished" at the outset of the war and the vivid montage of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein left the impression that all was going according to plan. We became so thoroughly hooked to the "reality" of 24-hour cable news, that we didn't pause to consider that perhaps the enemy was laying the groundwork for a long-term insurgency.
The Bush administration seized upon the isolated images to prove the case that the war was going well and then shouted down skeptics who dared to suggest that there was a lot going on beneath the surface of the fighting that we weren't seeing on our TV screens.
If we are to make better public-policy choices when it comes to going to war, we will first need to develop a much more critical approach to the sources of explosive images and the wrenching scenes of carnage that beam from our broadband-enabled computer screens.
Television networks, for example, should not jump into bed so quickly with the military to provide live war coverage, because their access to the battlefront is necessarily limited by military requirements.
TV producers and their network executives should also make a more cogent effort to blend news reporting and news analysis. In the pre-Internet era, the voices of David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid were used on a regular basis to tell the full story of the "news behind the news." Today, lucid commentators such as Daniel Schorr and Kevin Philips are largely relegated to National Public Radio. Yet, news analysis is more important than ever in a world ruled by an abundance of contradictory video images.
The equally disturbing corollary to the "rule of digital video" is that warfare not captured on video — such as the violence in Darfur — barely registers as news that prompts policymakers to action. Hostile regimes in poor nations that suppress the recording of atrocities can gain months, if not years, to carry out their genocidal policies before world opinion catches up with the facts on the ground.
In a world of swirling images, we need seasoned reporters more than ever. We can't slow down the march of technology, but as informed citizens, we need to "grow a new set of eyes" to understand what we see.
Alex Alben is a high-tech executive based in Seattle.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company