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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Analysis: US media under fire

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

The US media has come under pressure for stoking up pessimism as the fighting has intensified.

The sacking of Peter Arnett by NBC for appearing on Iraqi television is just one sign of the enhanced sensitivity of the American news media to charges of being unpatriotic as the Iraq war enters its third week.

Mr Arnett was not the first reporter sacked for his war coverage. Last Friday, Phil Smucker, a Christian Science Monitor reporter, was escorted to the Kuwait border after Marines charged he was revealing sensitive information about the location of troops while broadcasting.

And Fox News celebrity correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who was with the 101st Airborne Division, was asked to leave Iraq on Monday by the US military for the same reason; Fox reportedly said it was looking into the matter.

(These criticisms are) a concerted media effort to marginalise the voices of patriotic Americans
Radio talk show host Glenn Beck, organiser, Rallies for America

From the beginning, the US media has been very sensitive to charges that the new technology of live reporting from the field would put troops in harm's way, with news anchors like CBS's Dan Rather repeatedly telling viewers that all "embedded" reports were authorised by US military officials.

With some 600 journalists in the field with US troops, controversy has raged about their role and how closely they have identified with the US war effort.

The live reporting has generally been sympathetic to the troops, but it has also showed graphic evidence of the increased intensity of the fighting - and contributed to the rapid change in mood over the last week.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the 24-hour news coverage distracts from the overall picture of a war that is going to plan.

"What we are seeing is every second another slice of what's actually happening out there. It's a breathtaking sight to see it. It tends to be all accurate, but not in an overall context," he told a news conference last week.

Blame the messenger

The media has also been accused of being overly optimistic about the early course of the war, and then too pessimistic as the pace of events slowed down.

Clear Channel is in the business of having the largest possible audience, not the most political unified audience
John Hogan, chief executive, Clear Channel radio

As President Bush and other officials appeared in public last week to reinforce support for the war, the President's press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said that top officials like Vice-President Dick Cheney were being selectively quoted when they appeared to suggest in the first weekend that the war might be over quickly.

The sharp change in the mood has also been blamed on the commentators, especially the retired generals who have regularly appeared on the cable news networks.

Many, like the retired Nato commander General Wesley Clark on CNN, argued that the Pentagon should have sent more troops to the Gulf, and perhaps waited longer until they were in place, before starting the campaign.

Battle of the tabloids

The biggest critics of these voices have, in fact, been other media outlets which are now competing to see who can be the most patriotic.

Peter Arnett on Iraqi TV
Arnett was fired after appearing on Iraqi TV

Fox News, which is controlled by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, has overtaken CNN as the most watched cable news channel on the back of its strongly pro-war stance, and its actions have been copied to some extent by the third, and smallest cable channel, MSNBC.

MSNBC has also taken to flying a US flag on screen during its Iraq coverage, and created a special section - "America's bravest" - where viewers can send pictures of their loved ones who are serving in the war effort.

Fox News' website regularly features heroic pictures of US troops in battle, news of pro-war rallies and terrorist threats, and lists of "fallen heroes".

And a similar battle is raging in the press.

In New York City, the tabloid newspaper owned by Mr Murdoch, the Post, is gaining on its long-standing rival, the Daily News, on the back of its aggressive war coverage.

The Post was famous for its front-page picture of the French and German delegates to the UN, who were portrayed as the "axis of weasels" with their faces replaced by animal heads.

And a column in Monday's Post, "Behind the Experts' Gloom", by John Podhoretz, accuses the retired generals of viewing the conflict "through a very narrow and self-interested prism" based on their opposition to Defence Secretary Rumsfeld's military reform plans.

The Post's editor, Australian Col Allen, says his rivalry "is a fight to the finish" and "to be subtle might be confusing."

The editor of the Daily News, Edward Kosner, says that the Post is being "hyperbolic and ridiculous," especially in its coverage of the French, and "it's the quality of the candy, not the wrapper, that counts."

HAVE YOUR SAY
24-hour coverage is the least we should expect
Lee Rotert, USA

Promoting the war

The sharpest controversy has occurred not in the world of television or the press, but in the normally less prominent sphere of radio.

America's biggest radio broadcaster, Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 stations nationwide with an audience of 110m each week, reaching 54% of the population aged between 18 and 49, has come under fire for censoring anti-war songs and promoting pro-war "Rallies for America" in local areas.

John Hogan of Clear Channel said that the station "was in the business of having the largest possible audience, not the most political unified audience," and denied any censorship.

But the company has allowed its syndicated talk show host, Glenn Beck, to urge people to attend 13 pro-war rallies which were promoted by local stations, including Atlanta station WGST, which attracted up to 25,000 people on 15 March.

Mr Beck says he has been doing this on his own initiative - and it broadly reflecting the opinions of his audience.

He says the criticism is a "concerted media effort to marginalise the voices of patriotic Americans."

Others say that in promoting these rallies, Clear Channel was violating FCC rules to serve the public interest and present a fair and balanced view of news events.

Polls are continuing to show strong support for the war among the US public, with three out of four in favour of the military action.

But there is a growing sense of pessimism that the campaign may be longer, and costlier, than previously thought.

So the battle over how the media covers the war is likely to intensify.




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