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from Dateline (October 23, 2003)

A Professor Provides His Perspectives On the Ever-Evolving News Industry
by Susan Katsaros

Anthony R. Fellow, professor of communications and coordinator of the journalism concentration in communications, is wrapping up a book on American media history to be published next spring by Wadsworth. On the heels of a recent Center for Media and Public Affairs evaluation of how the Iraq war was covered on television, Dateline asked Fellow to comment on the media.

Q: What did you think of the media coverage of the Iraq war?

It was a seminal event in reporting since this war was unlike any other in terms of access and coverage in “real time.” The Bush administration made an effort to allow journalists to be embedded with the military. In addition, correspondents were offered boot camp training with the military. I would chalk this up as a very brilliant move on the part of the administration if its motives were to give the press as much access as possible.


Q: Regarding the actual coverage?

If you were watching CNN early on, you thought we were losing the war. If you were watching FOX News, you thought we were winning. What distressed me was a question blurted out by Paula Zahn, while anchoring a CNN broadcast. The puzzled anchor said: “Who declares victory – the president or the military?” I shouted to the television, “The media.”

Television covers war as they do political elections. It is the horse-race mentality – that is, who is winning and who is losing. The “turkey award” for war reporting goes to Erin Moriarty of CBS News who wore a gas mask during one of her reports from Iraq. Edward R. Murrow would have choked. While covering World War II, he never went into a bomb shelter.

The problem with television reporting from Iraq was that reporters became stars, not the soldiers they were interviewing. In Vietnam, correspondents talked to soldiers who directly relayed their thoughts and feelings. In the most recent war, reporters did the talking and interpreted what others said.

These days reporters and news anchors have become the story. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when a group of women correspondents from the Vietnam War came to one of my classes and said they were embarrassed by their colleagues in Iraq.


Q: What about since President Bush declared the war over?

The focus now is if we can build a democratic Iraq and not get involved in another Vietnam quagmire. Because of the Bush administration’s revelation that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, Iraq is taking a lower rung on the news ladder. It is no longer a win-lose situation, which media enjoy reporting upon.



How has reporting style changed over time?


During the founding years of our country, the role of the reporter is what most politicians would like it to be today. Their job was to improve what the politician said. That was it. President Andrew Jackson’s policy of economic and political equality changed America and news reporting. News became a serious and most profitable business as advertising developed. Jackson and the press at the time embellished the true Miltonian philosophy that all people should be subjected to different ideas.

In some respects we haven’t moved much from the 1830s and the heyday of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the early part of the 1900s. The bottom line is that when people are left alone for long periods of time, what they want to read is gossip and sensationalism. We saw it in 1690 with the first attempt at a newspaper. We saw it in the 1830s with the advent of the Penny Press, and we saw it during the New Age of Journalism in the 1860s.

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t had good journalism in this country. It is the press that has brought to light injustices, inequalities and malfeasance. We need the press as watchdog on government. What was that old saying, “if you scratch a journalist, you will have someone who considers himself or herself as important as a U.S. senator.” In some respects, they are more important. Our founding fathers thought so. It is the only profession they protected.


Q: What do you think about today’s television news?

Media have the greatest impact on society, which is why I don’t understand why university students are not required to take a media course. I take journalism and author James Fallows’ work very seriously. He contends that the way media report on politics has made us a very cynical people in our regard for politicians. The result of such reporting and resulting perceptions, he says, will eventually lead to the end of democracy. I look at my job as trying to prevent that from happening.