The Digital Journalist
Virtual News from the D.O.D
November 2003

by Ron Steinman

I started this column as an examination of www.centcom.mil, the Department of Defense's website for Iraq.

Not quite all the news you want about the war, but sometimes enough to keep one in touch until something traumatic and tragic happens, as did on Sunday November 2, 2003, when newspapers headlines, some lurid, some not, and television, mostly hyped, screamed that 15 G.I.'s aboard an American helicopter died in an enemy missile attack. It was the single worst disaster in the war, and it came slightly more than six months after President Bush declared mission accomplished, the United States had won the war.

There is more. Friday six men died when a Blackhawk helicopter exploded in the air, perhaps hit by a rocket propelled grenade or similar weapon. Witnesses said the helicopter exploded in mid-air, swayed back and forth, as chopper will, and then nose-dived into the ground. With at least four more deaths in the last few days, we saw the bloodiest seven days in Iraq since Baghdad fell.

If all you did were go online and enter the Pentagon's official website for the war, www.centcom.mil you would never know hostilities were continuing in Iraq. Most days there are still casualties, dead and wounded. Casualties, when men and women die in war, are never easy to report whether by a briefing officer or by a correspondent or photographer. In war, and for military briefing officers, one death is like any other death and though more may die in any incident, the many who die will get no more play than a single death. The military hates dead and wounded because they underline the myth of invulnerability. When men and women in the new army die in battle, it is as if the Department of Defense is admitting defeat. Defeat and the death are occurrences it can ill afford when it plans to keep sending our young men and women to war. It is difficult to keep spirits up and morale high when there are too many reports of casualties.

The stories of the downed helicopters are not easy to find on Central Command's website. At one time, you could find casualty reports at the top of the opening page. No more. Central Command changed the position of "Casualty Reports" on its title page, perhaps to lessen the impact of the war's dead and wounded. "Casualty Reports," which used to be at the top of the first page, now are at the bottom in small print, as if an afterthought.

The bottom of the page is where someone might not look; especially after going though everything Central Command has to offer. Now not only are the words "Casualty Reports" at the bottom of the page, you must open them first to get inside, and then open again to get the story, usually perfunctorily reported with little detail and no emotion.

For the press, casualties always make good copy. They provide headlines and pictures of destruction. They fill columns of print, and more than their normal share of minutes on the air. They make for serious next day stories about family, friends and the terrible loss of loved ones. The pot never stops boiling.

Are dead and wounded an unthinkable afterthought for the military?

Though they sometimes report casualties that find their way into the headlines, they take up almost no space on the website compared to the attempt to highlight the successes the Bush administration claims the press ignores. I wonder what the military is hiding or running from, and in that context, I am suspicious of everything I read there, not just its placement and emphasis.

When I finish surfing the site, I marvel at having been part of a virtual news conference and this new world of virtual reporting. It is where, if I look, I like to think I can find those updated casualty counts and after action reports from military units frequently engaged with a hidden enemy.

Did I say, updated casualty figures? Wait.

The first page opens with Latest Press Releases about activities of our troops, including stories of helping Iraqis to cope that remind me of what America tried in Vietnam without the benefit of the Internet. There are single pictures and photo galleries, mostly good but lacking in depth. Central Command's computer experts update their information frequently with stories about "Operation Enduring Freedom Coalition," "Operation Iraqi Freedom," and "Latest Stories from the Frontlines," including Afghanistan. It also has a "Resources" section with links to the Defense Department, and leads to other important background material.

This is where the material posted on Central Command's Web comes under suspicion, not because Central Command is lying, but because of the emphasis it puts on one soft story after another. I am not na´ve enough to believe the Department of Defense will tell me everything I want to know about the war. What it considers important is not necessarily what the public needs to help it make a careful judgment about daily life in Iraq for the American troops. When you look at the site, you will not find the downed helicopter reported on its front page where it belongs. Nor will anyone learn that on average American troops come under attack 30 times a day and five die each week to hostile fire. To get to what Central Command believes is news, you have to start with the stories of the day, which as of November 4, included the following:

"Military to Expand Rest and Recuperation Program.

490th Civil Affairs Battalion Soldiers Renovate Al Firdus Daycare Center.

Soldier Conducts Toy Drive for Iraqi Children."

These stories are about making peace; useful and important to what is happening in Iraq, but they have nothing to do with keeping the peace. As we learned in Vietnam from the failure of Pacification, American troops, though magnificent, have no training for building dams, cementing roads and distributing toys, and most important, police work and security.

Looking at the website, we can see that United States Central Command www.centcom.mil has everything a journalist and news junkie desires, and then some, except real news. It is beautiful, a remarkable piece of work. It has what a reporter or editor needs to write a story, compose a headline, and produce a television piece. If you run a newspaper, another website, or a television station you have almost everything necessary to tell the story in Iraq.

Is the website terrible? No. It is quite good, but it is a failure. It has the feel of the best sports sites on the Internet. Filled with facts, human-interest stories, photos, and a section telling you what time it is at CENTCOM, in Afghanistan and Qatar/Horn of Africa. There are quotes from senior officers and generals espousing the party line. With all that, you cannot do better for the military's take on what it considers complete information about the day's events. The Pentagon wants all its visitors to this site to believe they need go no further to get everything they require to compose their story or, better, to understand the story even if they are a regular or casual viewer. With so much on the site, it is an invitation to one-stop shopping. That is never enough. Be sure you understand what the Department of Defense is selling, what it stands for. Use the site wisely and well. If you do, it will be helpful. If used as gospel, you will fall into the mindset of the Central Command, and you will be theirs, probably exactly what they want.

This website is about smart people using all the modern tools at their command on the Internet to guide whoever uses it to think the way they do.

It is one effort among many the government uses to try to change the minds of an increasingly skeptical public that the war, though commendable and impossible to ignore, has run into trouble as America tries to keep the peace in Iraq.

It is good we still have newspapers, wire services, and television covering the war. Without them, we would be in the dark.

© Ron Steinman

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