The Digital Journalist
Reading the War:
Any War -- A Meditation
December 2007

by Ron Steinman

For most of the Vietnam War I was overseas, first in Vietnam, then Hong Kong and finally, London. From Hong Kong and London I made frequent visits to Saigon. I had little time to read about the Vietnam War because I was covering it. The Internet did not exist. There were no PCs. Information from the outside world came to me, meaning any of us in those outposts, from the foreign press, or from wire services if they were nearby, as The AP was to the NBC bureau in Saigon where I resided as bureau chief. The two local papers in Vietnam, The Saigon Post and The Saigon News, did a daily roundup of world news, including baseball, football, soccer, cricket and rugby scores. Those papers even printed New York stock market results. They covered local news, usually of a grisly nature, and very little of the war, really, mostly in the form of handouts and propaganda from the Saigon government. In Hong Kong and London I had a better sense of the war when I read the newspapers in those cities, some of which were thorough and complete. When I returned to the States, I had the opportunity to read my local papers, in New York, The New York Times and Newsday, and in Washington, The Washington Post.

TV and radio did a good job of covering the war in Vietnam, but by 1973 when the war ended for the United States and finally was over in 1975 for the Vietnamese, we, as news consumers and professionals, still had limited resources and access to the wide variety of sources available today to everyone with a computer. Reading about the war then was far easier than it is to read about the war in Iraq today or any other war now in progress because there was so much less of it.

Today the amount of coverage is overwhelming. Reading about the war in Iraq is difficult enough in a newspaper, even though most only briefly cover casualty counts, suicide bombers, statements from generals on the scene and from the White House. Move into the greater world of the Internet and it is nearly impossible to understand the war and its ramifications where every source for news is available on a PC by using a mere flick of a fingertip on a mouse or a touchpad. The Google News site explains what it is about with great simplicity. It says, "Search and Browse 4,500 news sources updated continuously." Every time I see that line, I can only look at it in wonder. Imagine that: 4,500 news sources in one place all for the taking, all for further confusion. That number of sites does not include other aggregators, their choices, and the millions of blogs that crowd and clutter the screens of our computers. This means, in simplest terms, every bit of news and information comes to us fractured and fragmented, an exploded grenade landing, then bursting into a thousand pieces, making it all but impossible for the best forensics expert to make sense of the damage.

Whatever war you read about, whether Iraq, the Sudan, Afghanistan or the many small struggles everywhere anyone turns, there is now surely more information than a person can absorb in a lifetime of caring about the world. Look at the Google News site and other super aggregators and consider the following concerning some recent stories. News of Iraq ebbs and flows, depending on where suicide bombers strike and the number of deaths each side inflicts on the other in that civil war. In the last weeks there have been more than 15,000 articles on Pakistan, General Musharraf, his emergency decree and the almost daily demonstrations. Is Google saying look and see how smart we are to present you with more information than you think you need, but that we want you to have so you can make an informed choice? Possibly. That said, does Google expect a person to read all the stories on a single subject just because those stories are there? Probably not. Is this a service from Google that has merit? Probably only for the obsessed or anyone who thinks he or she is the smartest kid in the room. I don't know anyone who has the time or courage to read that many versions of any one story. It gets worse or better, depending upon how you feel about spending your day with endless variations of the same story. Show me a person who has the guts and the time to read at minimum 300 or 400 versions of any story and I believe they might be in need of serious help. I ask, is it possible to over-aggregate, to be too encyclopedic for the sake of being thorough? I have no doubt that it is and I believe just for the sake of doing something rather than for its usefulness.

I still read newspapers. I know. Hold your criticism. I get The New York Times every day in the early morning. I eagerly scan the front page. I turn to sports, business, the arts and whatever other section attracts me. I see The Washington Post online. On the Web I also go to Google, Yahoo, sometimes CNN and other sites as well. Despite all that information, reading about the war in Iraq is an impossible and often frustrating experience. My eyes truly glaze over. My head spins from all the words and pictures. I feel as if I am in the middle of the Saul Steinberg cartoon, the one in which every letter and maybe every word in the English language erupts from the head of his character and fills the page with indecipherable script. Part of the problem is the formidable disconnection, perhaps in light years, between official releases on the war and stories that come from Iraq from journalists. We all understand, and if we do not we should, that TV does a mediocre job covering the war. Some nights the major networks devote 20 seconds to the war. The all-news channels have more war news but they have more time to fill. They usually are all talking heads, opinion based on who knows what, and no action, no pictures from Iraq unless they are of a suicide bomber's destruction of people and places.

According to some polls, a heap of anecdotal evidence, and seat-of-the-pants wisdom, the young rarely watch TV news shows and almost none read newspapers, unless it is the free paper they pick up at a subway or bus stop on the way to work. Headlines dominate those papers and they make the original USA Today look like a learned journal. Thus we have Google News, Yahoo, with all its news sites, and all the other platforms where people might land looking for information. These sites do not help us understand our divided world that lately seems to be on the edge of disintegrating. I don't have the faintest idea where I can turn, or to suggest where you can turn, for a satisfying answer. Reading the war in Iraq, and every other crisis, is more difficult than ever because of all the sources, good, bad and indifferent. This does not make understanding our age and its problems any easier. In fact, it makes it harder, and more difficult to make sense of the world in which we now live.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.