Media Mood Swings  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2003

Media Mood Swings   

When journalists wrote of a potential quagmire during the early fighting in Iraq, were they simply reflecting the realities of the battlefield and the views of active-duty and retired officers? Or did they make premature, facile judgments?

By Rachel Smolkin
     


One week into the war in Iraq, upbeat media reports of "shock and awe" had vanished, replaced by dreary pronouncements about insufficient forces and overextended supply lines that could bog down the war for months. Newspaper stories and television commentary had dissected the military campaign's emerging risks and suggested a wiser, wilier Saddam Hussein could trap U.S. forces in a quagmire.

The carping contrasted jarringly with the media's optimistic pre-war reports and their infatuation with embedded reporters' on-the-scene dispatches in the war's opening days. Critics of the coverage, led by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, accused the media of "mood swings," and some suggested reporters would benefit from calming medications and quality time on a therapist's couch.

"We have seen mood swings in the media from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single 24-hour period," Rumsfeld charged on March 28. "For some, the massive... volume of television--and it is massive--and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting."

That morning, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist, had opined in the Washington Post: "The media could use some lithium. Not since I studied bipolar disease 25 years ago have I seen such dramatic mood swings as in the coverage of the first week of the war.... By Monday the media were in full quagmire mode."

Weekend newspapers joined in the outcry. "Bouncing between spurts of overly optimistic expectations and overly pessimistic fits of defeatism may fill newspaper columns and TV air time," proclaimed a March 30 editorial in the Houston Chronicle. "But it doesn't necessarily reflect reality." Jonathan Riskind, Washington bureau chief of the Columbus Dispatch, also chided his colleagues in a column that day: "We in the media need to continue asking tough questions and tracking this war as closely as possible. But let's resist the temptation to jump to grand conclusions, optimistic or pessimistic, every hour."

One week later, predictions of a prolonged war had disappeared, replaced by accounts of the daring April 1 rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and reports of U.S. forces racing toward Baghdad. The tonal shift did nothing to quell a growing perception that the media were experiencing exaggerated vacillations in temperament. On April 7, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz noted that newspapers "sometimes seem to be suffering from manic-depressive mood swings, with upbeat 'shock and awe' stories giving way to gloomy the-plan-is-flawed pieces, only to be supplanted by exciting battle-for-Baghdad reporting."

Critics charge that these media "mood swings" magnified both expectations of an instantaneous victory and grumbles about military stumbles, resulting in schizophrenic coverage that distorted public perceptions of the military campaign. As is often the case in political reporting, the media's predictions and sweeping analysis during the war did not always match reality. A zest for provocative quotes and a focus on extreme scenarios, be they highs or lows, displaced dispassionate discussion.

Defenders of the media, including many reporters and editors, argue that journalists simply recorded successes and setbacks in the war. The Pentagon initially raised expectations for a speedy victory, which the media reported. When troops encountered stiffer-than-expected guerrilla resistance in southern Iraq, some current and retired military officers expressed consternation about the war strategy, and the media reported that, too.

Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, notes that a number of generals in Iraq and Kuwait, including the Army's senior ground commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, shared concerns about strategy, supply lines and troop strength. "Journalists did not make up the anxiety felt by generals on the battlefield. They were told of their anxieties," says Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for NBC News and CBS News. "That is not the media concocting a concern; this is a genuine concern, and the media was doing its job by passing that information on to the American public."

ABC News Vice President Jeffrey W. Schneider says journalists reported what they were told about the war's prospects. "What was clear is there were ups and downs in the story," he says. "The media was reflecting the way the military and the administration and the country were feeling about the war."

Some media observers contend that Rumsfeld intentionally manipulated public perceptions and then disingenuously accused the media of mood swings to serve his own interests. "I don't buy this whole idea of a mood swing," says Susan E. Tifft, a public policy professor at Duke University and former Time magazine associate editor. "Rumsfeld in particular is terrific at coming up with these slogans that really become the message of the day and label behavior in a way that makes it sound almost pernicious." The effect, she adds, "makes it very easy to discount what the press is doing."

Tifft says Rumsfeld was irritated that military officers in Iraq had spoken so bluntly to reporters. "When the press reported the anxieties and concerns of military men on the ground, the Pentagon didn't like it," she says. "The Pentagon was writing the script, and the actors on the ground were improvising."

Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a weekly newsletter that monitors broadcast television news, proclaims, "This Rumsfeld guy has got a lot of nerve." Tyndall contends that Pentagon officials inflated expectations of a quick surrender by Iraqis as part of their pre-war propaganda, knowing journalists would repeat those claims. "Then they turn around and complain about 'mood swings' when the statements they knew were not true turn out to be not true," Tyndall says.

The media rightly reported first the pre-war Pentagon hype and later the shortfall between those sanguine expectations and the grisly reality of war. But the relentless news cycle and the drama of a war unfolding live on television spurred a crush of grandiose pronouncements just days into the fighting--too early for journalists to offer any true perspective. While stories could have outlined several scenarios for the unfolding conflict, many seized on one, focusing on swift victory in early accounts and foretelling unremitting entanglement soon after. Reporters responded with Pavlovian conditioning to seeming echoes of Vietnam.

After unquestioningly relaying the Pentagon pre-war "shock and awe" rhetoric, journalists downplayed Rumsfeld's assertions of progress in late March, perhaps displaying a prudent new skepticism toward government-speak. But they often failed to apply the same scrutiny to critics, who may have had their own motives for disparaging the military strategy--distaste for a heretical war plan, or ingrained disputes with Rumsfeld's approach, or a worldview shaped by Vietnam.

The days leading up to war featured profuse reports about "shock and awe," a Pentagon phrase repeated ad nauseam in print and on television. On March 11, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume explained shock and awe as being so impressive and terrifying to the enemy at the war's onset "that the impulse is to surrender." A March 12 story in New York's Daily News led with this optimistic prophecy: "A senior military planner said confidently yesterday that an attack on Iraq could last as few as seven days. The official, who requested his name and rank not be printed, predicted with obvious pride that it would be the most spectacular military operation in history and involve very few American--or Iraqi--casualties."

And on March 18, ABC News correspondent John McWethy cited "intelligence sources" in reporting that "there is growing hope that the coalition land force can push rapidly up the main highway toward Baghdad, without meeting heavy resistance."

Early media amazement with available technology and embedded reporters' access to troops also contributed to initial excitement about military operations. Correspondent David Bloom, who died of a pulmonary embolism while covering the war, peppered NBC News and its cable sisters, MSNBC and CNBC, with action-packed reports while riding a customized M-88 tank-recovery vehicle.

In a March 21 interview with the irrepressible Bloom, embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, NBC "Today" co-host Matt Lauer opened by commenting that "we're also somewhat amazed by the reporting technology that we're putting to use" and closed by observing, "What an astonishing report." CNN anchor Carol Costello also raved that morning about the "amazing pictures" available for viewers.

But two days later, the tone shifted. On Sunday morning, March 23, the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera aired video of the first American prisoners of war. Journalists recounted guerrilla tactics by Iraqi forces posing as civilians or pretending to surrender and then attacking U.S. troops. Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister later lampooned for insisting Americans hadn't reached Baghdad, warned that U.S.-led forces would fall into a "quagmire" if they continued their advance. "We have drawn them into the swamp and they will never get out of it," he said. Echoes of the quote's essence, if not always the "q" word itself, reverberated through the media. The next week, the front pages and special sections of major newspapers dished up news and analysis questioning the military strategy.

"Five days into the war, the optimistic assumptions of the Pentagon's civilian war planners have yet to be realized, the risks of the campaign are becoming increasingly apparent, and some current and retired military officials are warning that there may be a mismatch between [Rumsfeld's] strategy and the force he's sent to carry it out," wrote Knight Ridder Newspapers' senior military correspondent, Joseph L. Galloway. His analysis, which appeared on the March 25 front pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Columbus Dispatch, noted in the second sentence that the war's outcome "isn't in doubt." But it added that defeating Iraq's forces was "proving to be harder, and it could prove to be longer and costlier in American and Iraqi lives" than the plan's architects expected.

On March 27, a page-one Washington Post story warned that despite rapid advances of U.S. forces, "some senior U.S. military officers are now convinced that the war is likely to last months and will require considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait, senior defense officials said yesterday." Military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks added, "Some of them see even the potential threat of a drawn-out fight that sucks in more and more U.S. forces."

The New York Times carried an analysis that day by R.W. Apple Jr. on the front of its special war section. "The war in Iraq is just a week old, but it is clear that Saddam Hussein has learned a lot since his forces were routed in the Persian Gulf war in 1991," Apple wrote. "It is not likely to change the outcome of the war, but it will prolong the fighting, make it more costly for his adversaries and profoundly affect the way it is seen in other Arab countries and around the world."

Television accounts frequently took cues from newspaper stories or featured retired generals with their own pessimistic assessments. On March 26, the night before Ricks' story ran in the Post, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Ricks regarding his "important story that will appear in tomorrow morning's edition."

NBC's retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey and CNN's retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the NATO supreme allied commander in the 1999 Kosovo campaign, said there weren't enough U.S. ground troops in Iraq (see "The TV Battalion," May). "It is somewhat absurd to be making sweeping judgments about a war six or seven days after it starts, but the speeded-up news cycle seemed to demand that," the Post's Kurtz says. "We heard a lot of speculation about how badly things were going, which was totally outdated within a week."

James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, CIA director and energy secretary, admonished the media in an April 17 Wall Street Journal opinion piece. "Much of what appeared in press accounts was misleading, if not wrong," Schlesinger wrote. "There were coalition forces supposedly 'bogged down' in a 'quagmire,' suffering 'substantial casualties,' with insufficient forces, with supply lines stretched and exposed to undue risk. Momentary setbacks--or alleged setbacks--were inflated in a manner that obscured the overall course of battle."

Jack Shafer, editor at large and media critic for the online magazine Slate, says many stories did not give equal weight to the viewpoints of Rumsfeld and his allies. "A lot of people in the press have a sort of Vietnam paradigm through which they see the entire world," he says. While "embedded TV generals" did make news, Shafer argues, "what the press missed is that they were part of the old military order that was expressing its last gasp."

He and some other media observers particularly fault Apple, partly because the Times scribe also had authored an analysis published October 31, 2001, asking if Afghanistan could become another Vietnam and noting that "the ominous word 'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations." Just over one week later, Mazar-e Sharif fell to the Northern Alliance, the first major ground victory of a war that rapidly led to the ouster of the Taliban government.

On April 5, little more than a week after Apple's analysis about the unforeseen resourcefulness of Saddam's forces, the Times ran another Apple analysis, this one offering a much rosier view of the allied invasion, which "accelerated with stunning speed in less than a week. No less remarkable has been the transformation of the political atmosphere at home and, to a lesser degree, abroad."

The abrupt switch provoked a scathing April 7 column from Shafer, who charged that "master gasbag" Apple "dismounts from the Defeatist Express and joins the All-American war wagon, writing with no sense of irony or self-correction."

Shafer further lambasted Apple for failing to quote any named sources in the piece published March 27 and, in an interview, for "writing out of his own fevered imagination."

Neither Apple nor Times Washington Bureau Chief Jill Abramson returned calls seeking comment for this article. In an analysis published April 20, Apple offered this coda: "Nobody got it quite right. The war in Iraq, now in its final military stages after only a month of fighting, was neither as painful as its opponents predicted nor as painless as its proponents suggested."

Galloway, hired by Knight Ridder in November as a consultant to help ready its war coverage, says criticisms of insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq are still valid even though the attack was "breathtaking." "Are we all required not to say anything, to not criticize anything, even when we think it runs the risk of costing American lives?" asks Galloway, who has covered numerous wars during more than four decades as a reporter. He contends the military plan relied heavily on optimistic assumptions and good luck. "The main criticism would be that the level of risk that was accepted was not something that the American military likes or feels very comfortable with," he says. Asked about the challenges of assessing a war so quickly, Galloway replies: "I work for a daily newspaper chain. We operate on a daily basis, including analysis."

Ricks, the Post's military correspondent, says his reporting showed that field commanders held a very different viewpoint from that prevailing at the Pentagon. "I would dispute any other way of doing it," Ricks says of his decision to lead with field commanders' concerns. "You want to accurately represent what people are saying and thinking." He adds that a swift U.S. victory was not inevitable and the military campaign was a "more difficult enterprise than it now appears to be in retrospect."

Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, says that at least some mild media mood swings were arguably appropriate. "It is a fact that the administration thought it had a chance of taking Saddam out on the first night of the war and winning very quickly, and those hopes were dashed," McManus says. "It is a fact that the initial advance was almost miraculously easy, but then the guerrilla harassment of the supply lines did come as a surprise and had to be dealt with." Commanders quickly overcame that harassment and Baghdad fell more easily than expected, he adds.

McManus says that on-the-record quotes from military officers in the field and on television influenced the downswing in mood. Gen. Wallace told reporters that the enemy was not fighting as war games had anticipated.

"We are conditioned to a Washington in which bad news is never uttered on the record, so any time one or two people deliver bad news on the record, it has the force of a thunderclap," McManus says. "I really do think that the Wallace quote and a few others had a sort of validating effect for the whole skeptical school."

Even so, he says Los Angeles Times reporters and editors spoke frequently about how to avoid exaggerating each day's swing in military circumstances. The military campaign in Afghanistan showed reporters that "a bad day on the battlefield doesn't mean the war is being lost," he observes.

At the Wall Street Journal, reporters and editors tried to look ahead with stories not directly tied to that day's developments, says Barney Calame, a deputy managing editor. Calame says the Journal and other papers covered news developments. "I don't think I observed any significant mood swings, certainly in the print media," he says. "To me, the mood is something that would pervade all the stories in the package," such as all the stories in the special sections of the Washington Post or the New York Times.

While making clear that he in no way equates coverage of human lives with reporting on the stock market, Calame does note that Journal reporters are attuned to the dangers of overreacting to isolated events because of the paper's orientation toward business and financial news. "We're used to covering equities markets, and equities markets can be very volatile," he says. "One has to be very careful about reading too much into one day's developments and one week's developments. We're always mindful that we don't get all excited and make some pronouncements because the market goes down in a particular day.... We are very much aware of what an overreaction to a one-day movement in the stock market can look like two weeks or two months later."

Journal reporters Greg Jaffe in Washington and Hugh Pope and Helene Cooper in Iraq wrote a front-page March 31 story headlined "Military Officers Warn They Have Too Few Troops." The lead stated that the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq without a key Army division "is now being criticized by senior officers who worry the move has complicated and may lengthen the war." The story also carefully noted, "It's still early in the war and a swift victory over the Republican Guard divisions guarding the gates to Baghdad would quickly silence critics."

Jaffe says Journal reporters heard "very real" concerns among active-duty generals in the Army that the forces weren't large enough and notes that the "bold and audacious" Pentagon plan departed from traditional Army doctrine envisioning more forces in the rear. "I'm pretty convinced that the Pentagon was worried about it even though they weren't saying it publicly from the podium," Jaffe says, adding that officials hastened the deployment of about 500 soldiers from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Polk, Louisiana, to Iraq.

But he also wonders whether dramatic accounts from embedded reporters under fire were so captivating that they may have skewed journalists' perceptions about progress in the war. "There were also people out there who I thought were very smart who were saying, 'Look, these Fedayeen attacks are not a big deal,' " Jaffe says.

He and his editors discussed whether the story was premature. "We were worried that it's really early in the war and way too soon to be pronouncing it a failure," Jaffe says. "We tried to couch it in our story, and I'm not sure we did it as well as we could have."

Some media analysts contend that the war reporting was fairly straightforward, but the incessant news cycle contributed to a perception of mood swings. "What you're dealing with here is something completely new to all of us, which was covering a war in real time," Duke's Tifft says. "Especially with this 24/7 coverage of the war on CNN and the cable channels, there was a sense that you had a thermometer in the mouth and were watching every tiny little uptick or downtick in the coverage."

Harvard's Kalb adds that the "negative here is not with the newspapers. The negative is with the television and radio talk shows where everything gets magnified in the context of a 24/7 delivery system." A front-page New York Times story about Gen. Wallace, for example, becomes part of the morning discussion on radio and television; reporters ask about it during that day's Pentagon briefing, and the same story is repeated frequently throughout the day, gorged with commentary. "It's like a cow chewing its cud," Kalb says. "By evening time, it takes on a new appearance, and that is the mood swing from morning to night. It is the direct consequence of the way news is reported."

Mark Effron, vice president of live news programming for MSNBC, rejects the bovine feeding analogy as "elitist nonsense. I think we play a real service by providing news all day." Noting that ratings surged during the war, Effron says people craved information and newspapers were "already obsolete" by the time they reached readers' doorsteps. Cable news, by contrast, served up the totality of each day's events--Pentagon and Central Command briefings; vivid, ongoing accounts from Bloom and other embedded reporters; and insights from hired consultants and guests.

But, like Tifft, Effron compares the cable news approach to taking a patient's temperature for 24 hours straight. He says the war "showed some of the extraordinary achievements of American journalism, but because we were watching it and processing it in real time, it really showed why it was kind of the first draft of history." CNN and Fox News Channel declined to comment for this story.

Mark Bowden, an Atlantic Monthly national correspondent who wrote "Black Hawk Down," says the war coverage "absolutely" had mood swings, "without a doubt." He recalls being "flabbergasted" looking back at an episode of MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" in which guests, including the Post's Ricks, talked about how "awful the war was going, how clearly the war was bogged down, how it was going to last months."

Bowden says the best way for journalists to counter the mood of the moment is to weigh alternatives in their pieces. A story could state that "yes, at the moment it looks like supply lines are overextended because the advance has been so rapid. That could mean that troops could be strung out and could become vulnerable. It also could mean that we are on the verge of an amazingly rapid success."

In a March 27 op-ed for the New York Times headlined "Will Baghdad Fight to the End?" Bowden examined Saddam's "cunning and cruel" strategy of leaving "pockets of determined loyalists" strewn in cities. In the battle for Iraqi loyalties, he concluded, "I'm afraid the odds at this point favor Saddam Hussein." But he also outlined two alternative scenarios: "The outcome will depend in large part on the people of Baghdad, each of whom has a decision to make. What they decide could mean either a quick defeat of the regime or a protracted mess that would amount at best to a Pyrrhic victory for allied troops."

In a March 30 Los Angeles Times analysis, McManus declared Bush and his aides were digging in for a "longer war than first hoped for" and faced the "sobering prospect" of a "ripple effect of problems stretching from the battlefield to the rest of the world--including the home front." But, like Jaffe, McManus presented an alternative outcome high in his front-page story: "It's still possible that the war could end in a matter of weeks, without house-to-house fighting in the Iraqi capital."

More widespread attention to alternatives in both print and television could have tempered perceptions of media mood swings. Efforts to handicap the war failed, underscoring both the media's fixation on predictions and the futility of trying to foretell the future. References to Vietnam and quagmires seemed at least premature and at most an inappropriate paradigm for the current conflict. Embedded reporters provided authoritative, absorbing accounts and vital information but could not gauge the entire battlefield. Neither could active-duty Army officers in Iraq and Kuwait or retired generals on television, whose unquestionably newsworthy concerns came to dominate coverage in late March.

"In retrospect, it's hard to say we shouldn't have given the other voices greater prominence, the voices saying, 'This isn't a big deal,' " Jaffe says. "I wish I had a graph higher up in the story--I know I had it in my notebook--someone saying, 'Look, these attacks are a nuisance but they're not strategically significant. They haven't killed large numbers of people; the supply lines are still moving. Don't make more of them than they are.' "

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