Backstory: Why is modern ‘war coverage’ so confusing?

We trace the path from actual ‘war correspondents’ to our rather odd, antiseptic, human-interest version of ‘war.’

Photo: Screenshot: Opening Night of Shock and Awe – CNN

16 March 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

By James Porteous | 16 March 2022

In so many ways, unfortunately, there is nothing ‘new’ in the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. 

Yes, it is horrid and inhumane, but it is also a replay of the wars in Syria and Yemen and Palestine and a dozen other conflicts in a dozen other countries.

And, as is often the case, it involves both a ruthless leader and, as always, oil.

But I’m sorry to say that one of the reasons we are seeing ‘this war’ and not the others is based in large part on Western posturing.

By this I mean that the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ involves the ‘bad guys,’ not the ‘good guys (us.) So it is often ‘okay’ to show some of the horrors of war, but for the most part, our media treat it not as a war, but as a ‘story about a war.’

So the coverage is mainly focused on sanctions, boycotts of Russian authors, vastly increased military budgets, Twitter ‘debates,’ NATO control and the rather bizarre modern-day-pop-up-versions of the McCarthy hearings.

And Russian oil, but not the other kinds. 

So we see tears and refugees and the occasional battle-scenes, but by and large, it is meant to be presented as an antiseptic, human-interest version of ‘war.’

So be it.

But beware: The stories of refugees and human interest and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanding to be heard will, at some point, disappear as quickly and as suddenly as they first appeared.

And in the end you may find yourself feeling as confused about what happened as you were before this story first appeared. 

So let’s begin with a quick look back at how we arrived at this rather bizarre version of ‘war coverage.’

Much has changed in the world of the ‘war reporting’ over the years.


Much changed in the world of war coverage after World War II.

In the days of the Vietnam War, for example, you could turn on your nightly news to see correspondents running through streets or rice paddies under gunfire or hunkered down in ditches.

The bullets were real. And so was their fear of not making in through the day alive.

In the clip below: Marine Patrol Action In Vietnam.

Sequences Show Land And River Patrols And A Successful Attack On A Vietcong Village.

Emphasizes The Importance Of Patrol Action In Maintaining Contact With An Elusive Enemy.

Contact! Ambush (1966)

Footage and often newspaper articles, would be filmed or edited ‘in the field’ (the warzone) and then shipped to editors or TV networks in the US or local headquarters before being prepared for public release.

Clearly, even if there was a large gap between the time the information was compiled and then dispersed, the material was still of value because it brought viewers a remarkable, first-hand and admittedly exciting view of ‘war.’

Many war correspondents, through no fault of their own, really, became ‘stars’ for the way they relentlessly gathered the latest war information.

Neil Sheehan was one of the best.
Vietnam War reporter and author Neil Sheehan dies aged 84

Although war coverage and the role of war correspondents would continue in this fashion in much of the world, with the introduction of ’embedded journalists’ during the Iraq wars, war reporting in the Global North would become little more than ongoing TV and news spectacles.


Indeed, the network TV planning for the start of the ‘Iraq War’ in 2003 would take almost as long as the logistics for the ‘real war’ itself.

But the payoff was a ratings sensantion. For the first time, viewers around the world could sit in their living rooms, coffee or beer in hand, held spellbound by the glorious graphics and screeching proclamations from the ‘reporters,’ both in the field and in the studios.

But this was no longer the old school reporting of war correspondents. Instead it was the beginning of what we largely have today: reporters reporting on a Breaking News Story.

Most of the time, they had no more access to actual factual details of what was happening than we did.

And they were only told what the US military wanted to tell them.

‘Shock and awe’ campaign underway in Iraq

March 22, 2003 Posted: 3:58 AM EST (0858 GMT)

The U.S. and its allies launched a massive aerial assault against Iraq on Friday. At 12:15 p.m. EST, anti-aircraft fire could be seen rising in the skies above Baghdad.

Within an hour, tremendous explosions began rocking the Iraqi capital, as the Pentagon announced “A-Day” was underway.

The campaign was intended to instill “shock and awe” among Iraq’s leaders, and it was directed at hundreds of targets in Iraq, officials said.

Plumes of fire could be seen rising above targets in Baghdad at 1:05 p.m. EST. CNN Correspondent Wolf Blitzer reported that in his 30 years of experience, he had never seen anything on the scale of Friday’s attack on the Iraqi capital.

“Shock and Awe” The Beginning of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq (CNN Live Coverage)
CNN Live Coverage – Start of Iraq War (7:00 A.M E.T – 9:02 A.M E.T)
From Thursday, March 20th, 2003 CNN Live coverage of the start of the Iraq war.

From Friday, March 21st, 2003 continuing CNN live coverage of the opening of Iraq War. The war began at 9:34 P.M E.T/ 5:34 A.M (Iraq Time) on Wednesday, March 19th. – This was the day of the shock and awe campaign which begins @59:00 into the video.

KSTP Embedded Journalists 2003 Gulf War

It was all very exciting, of course, and provided the sort of ‘water cooler’ chit-chat largely missing from our rather dull lives at the time, but if you looked closely, you might have noticed that something was missing.

Below: The Sabre Rattles (2002): With tensions rising between George Bush and Saddam Hussein, we take a tour of Iraq as it prepares for US attacks.

Iraq Gears Up for US Attacks (2002)

Below: According to a 2013 analysis by researchers, the deaths of approximately 400,000 people could be directly or indirectly attributed to the war in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

Children of Iraq War

We then entered what might be called the years of ‘silent wars.’

They were not silent for the people in those countries, but the viewers in the countries that were often responsible for these wars (us again) rarely knew (or today even know) what was happening in their name a world away. 

Below: Ten years since the start of the war and things in Syria have never been worse. Millions have been internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Cities and historic sites lie in ruins. So who’s still fighting who in Syria? Can its people ever return home? And is there an end in sight?

Syria — is it a war without end?

The same pictures and stories would be told and retold elsewhere, be it Yemen, Iraq (again and again), and other places frankly too numerous to mention in this quick overview.

Which brings us to the latest Front Page War: Ukraine 2022

For many people, the sudden arrival of a ‘new story’ brought to mind the ballistic hysteria first seen at the outset of covid. 

Indeed, without warning, overnight our newspapers and TV news shows moved from Covid 24/7 to 24/7 Ukraine: The Crisis.

But like covid, despite the hours of live coverage, actual details about what is taking place remain scarce.

All of which brings us back to our earlier observations about the death of the ‘war correspondent.’

We now see a rather endless stream of reporters in the field reporting on… human interest stories

Below: More than 2.5 million people have now fled Ukraine, since the invasion began. Many of them crossed the border into Poland, before spreading far and wide across Europe.

Ukraine War: Refugees say goodbye to family members at bus station

What we often see now are reporters telling us what they ‘think’ or ‘understand’ to be the story. 

You will notice that many of the reports contain vague and unverified observations about ‘long lines of tanks sitting idle due to a lack of fuel’ or ‘we understand that backroom talks are taking place meant to iron out the details for a ceasefire.’ 

No proof is offered. Indeed, the reporter likely has no idea what a long line of tanks means. He is not meant to be privy to such information.

Below is a good example of an opinion piece dressed up as a factual ‘report.’

This gentleman has based most of what he says on observations such as ‘as many sources have reported, Putin has experienced much more difficulty than he had anticipated.’

Well, maybe that is true. Or maybe this observation is based on other observations from other TV reporters who have also stated that many sources have reported that this is the case. 

Below: Russian and Ukrainian officials meet today for another round of talks. Negotiations thus far have been unsuccessful at ending the war in Ukraine. Christopher Chivvis, senior fellow and director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment and a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Europe, joins “CBS News Mornings” to describe possible outcome scenarios for the war.

Possible endgame scenarios for the war in Ukraine

If we throw in totally unsubstantiated reports such as the one telling us that ‘Russia seeks military equipment and aid from China, U.S. officials say’ we have a mishmash of hyperbole verging on CNN ‘Shock and Awe’ coverage. 

And again, this is not meant to diminish the hardships or the value seen in such reports, but if these reports were shown on Russian TV, the reaction would be easy to predict. 

So, finally, let’s look at this ‘old school’ battle update from Sky News.

Below, Defence and Security analyst Michael Clarke outlines progress made and difficulties faced on Day 20 of the Russian campaign in Ukraine.

He explains how Russian forces have yet to take the highly sought after south western city of Odessa, and how the Varvarivs’kyy bridge near Mykolaiva is a crucial pinch point.

Analysis: Russian forces failing to “encircle” Ukrainian units and make progress

You can see the difference.

This is ‘war reporting’ from someone who knows war.

We can see first-hand that war coverage often involves ‘human interest’ stories, but the actual act of fighting a war is not based on speculation or runs of good or bad luck. It is a science. It is rooms filled with maps and charts and fuel deliveries and sleepless nights in tanks and… carnage.

Mr Clarke does not claim to ‘know’ for certain what the Russian military has done or will do, but his experience in the ‘art of war,’ as it were, informs his opinions and observations, all of which are based on fact and details about past battles and experiences. 

In the past, we gladly relied on such learned professionals to fill in the gaps. That this option is no longer offered is not by accident.

Now we often find ourselves confused because the short-form responses we use to respond to ‘human interest stories’ on social media will not work when it comes to things like actual war. 

We are not meant to be experts about such things.

And some would say, neither is Putin.

But as one reporter recently said: ‘(‘Putin) may be cruel or even barbarian, but stupid or irrational he isn’t.’

Good lord. I had to add this video.

This will tell you everything you need to know about the constant media manipulation of the ‘facts of war,’ pretending to give unbiased views about un-American values. But listen to the words being used.

The ‘reports of low morale’ and ‘support is waning’ and unverified reports that people were being pushed to attend to offset low morale and ‘opposition of the war.’ All of which might be true, but these are basically observations made by the host and not ‘verified’ in any way.

Of course this is propaganda, but are people really so stupid that they do not realize it? As said below, if these comments were shown on a Russian TV network…

Hear what Putin told large crowd amid invasion


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