How are the Chronicle and CNN Handling the Information War?

by David Weir


This first big war of the 21st century is also the first big war of the Information Age, where all over the globe people have instant access to all the coverage they want, whenever they want it. Within that context, the Pentagon's decision to "embed" reporters with its troops is transforming the media-government relationship, and may end up transforming the war as well.


More than any previous conflict, this one is as much an Information War as a shooting war. The military planners have had many years to study past errors and refine new techniques. They've come to see that the "story" of the war and how that plays to different audiences is as critical to success as precision-guided missiles.


Most of the public is unaware of the emergence of concepts such as "NetWar," whereby military theoreticians have been studying how to use networks (social, political, and communications networks as well as technology networks) to their best advantage against similarly "networked" enemies.


an information war


The information war plays out over Internet and satellite technologies that allow millions of people to network together in ways never before possible. Instantaneous, decentralized communications between and among people who share goals and perspectives pushes and pulls the "news" through multiple distribution channels -- far beyond the reach of traditional, centralized media networks.


So how well do our local and national news media leaders understand these new realities, and how well are they handling these new challenges? I will discuss two news organizations -- the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN.


Chronicle coverage


The Chronicle's daily war section was its attempt to keep up with the natural advantages enjoyed by CNN and the other cable news networks. The section resembles The New York Times’ war section, though it is less ambitious and less original. As the war reaches the end of its first week, the Chronicle’s acute inability to compete with live TV means it will have to find creative ways to differentiate its coverage sufficiently to keep a hold on readers.


That said, the coverage to date has been impressive -- dramatic headlines, photos, charts, color, in-depth -- though I wonder how many people in the Bay Area actually consume all of this material every day. One has to be a “news junkie" (more on them later) to really appreciate the attention to detail that the Chronicle daily section is displaying.


Also, in recent days, the commitment to large-sized headlines is starting to limit the paper's ability to communicate anything original. If I already know, or think I know, about that "Gritty Firefight" that occurred yesterday, why should I read the lead story in today's Chronicle?


strong local coverage


On the other hand, the Chronicle has done reasonably well when it covers the local beat, especially the dramatic street protests against the war. I have been surprised, given the paper’s need to grow its younger audience, that the editors did not pay closer attention to the story of the young American activist, Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer. More in-depth coverage of that matter, including the text of the heart-breaking emails she sent her parents in the days before she was killed, would have been of interest to many younger readers, as well as the large local activist community that sees connections between this war and the Palestinian crisis.


CNN’s coverage


CNN's non-stop talking anchors are performing admirably, for the most part, though Aaron Brown lost his composure at one point. And when the network uses its backup anchors, it devolves into what might best be described as an unconscious parody of “Saturday Night Live”.


But Wolf Blitzer knows what he is doing, and is doing it extremely well. A major problem for CNN is how to avoid becoming part of the Pentagon's propaganda war. To date, embedded war correspondents are proving to be better proponents of the military effort than the Pentagon itself. That could change depending on how long the war lasts, and how much opposition to the war begins to take hold.


Major ethical issues face the CNN producers, like whether to show images of captured Americans once they were aired on Al Jazeera and posted on the Internet. So far, they seem to be navigating through these issues fairly well, mainly by disclosing what they are, and are not, showing us and why. This transparency is vital for retaining audience trust.


One problem for consumers is it is not healthy, physically or psychologically, to stay glued to CNN all the time. As we know from the Gulf War, the more people watched TV coverage of that conflict, the less they actually knew about it.


This war's coverage is so different, it is premature to say whether a similar effect will be apparent this time around. But everybody needs to take breaks from all of this stressful news and these shocking images, even if they are informative.


not the only story


Which brings me to the plight of the worst news junkies of all -- we journalists. We are all in danger of losing our perspective and being out of touch with our audiences if we devote ourselves completely to war coverage.


It is a big story, but it is not the only story. In the end, a more varied approach would lower some of the hype that inevitably creeps into saturation coverage and remind the public that the war is happening in a larger context that keeps changing.


An ludicrous example of the myopia of many journalists was on display at the White House press conference on the first day of the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign.


A number of reporters expressed disbelief that President Bush had not been watching the bombing on TV. They couldn’t imagine anyone, let alone the president, who could have refrained from watching the fireworks show. It did not seem to occur to them that he had more pressing things to do.


In essence, what we are witnessing is a grand lab experiment on how humans wage war in the information age. It is too early to predict what the outcome will be, but it’s easy to conclude that we’ve reached a turning point in the convergence of military and media strategies from which there can be no return.


David Weir teaches journalism at Stanford University