College of Media Dean Ron Yates is a professor of journalism and a former award-winning foreign correspondent, national correspondent, metropolitan editor, national editor and senior writer for Chicago Tribune.
What have we learned from the front-line coverage of the current war in Iraq that is different than the coverage of Vietnam or other recent conflicts?
There is an enormous difference between the way the war in Iraq is covered and the way Vietnam was covered. Reporters in Iraq are "embedded"-meaning they are attached to a particular unit and only that unit. In Vietnam there was no such thing as "embedding." We were able to go anywhere with any unit anytime. You simply jumped on a Huey chopper and flew away. Of course you never knew when you were going to get back or what story you would have when you did. It was very dangerous, but covering any conflict is dangerous. In some ways Iraq is even more dangerous because journalists are targeted by insurgents. That was usually not the case in Vietnam. What we are NOT getting out of Iraq is the broader coverage needed to put the war in context. You just can't move around the country like we could in Vietnam. I think that leaves journalists and by extension, the public, with a narrow view of events in Iraq.
What has changed in the relationship between reporters and the military?
Covering any war is a persistent exercise in frustration. On one side you have the military, which by its very nature, attempts to divulge as little information as infrequently as possible and on the other you have the media, which by its nature, wants to know everything all the time. Let's be brutally frank. War is about killing the enemy-or at the very least, incapacitating the enemy in some way. The best way to do that is to make sure all military operations are conducted in secrecy. I spent four years in military intelligence with a top secret and crypto security clearance before I became a journalist. Many of my journalist colleagues during the Vietnam era also had military backgrounds. That meant a lot of us had a good understanding not only of the tactics, but of the weapons being employed and their effective killing range. In fact, most of us could use the weapons U.S. and Viet Cong troops carried. Few journalists today have that kind of background and fail, therefore, to fully grasp what is going on around them.
How has technology changed the job of the war correspondent?
When I went to Vietnam I carried a portable typewriter, a couple of packages of extra typewriter ribbon, and some blank paper. That was my "technology." Today, reporters have satellite phones, PDA's, laptop computers, wireless modems, etc. They are constantly in touch with their offices. That's great for the foreign desk, but it makes the reporter's life much more stressful. When I would go up country in Vietnam or Cambodia, I actually had time to spend 3-4 days reporting without worrying about the desk calling me on a cell phone or sending me an e-mail. I could digest what I had seen, make sense out of it and then write a piece that I felt was comprehensive. Reporters today simply don't have that luxury. Technology has compressed time for them. You are forced into being an instant expert, which of course, is an oxymoron and that means the stories you produce are superficial and often without context.
Ron's recommended books on war reporting
"The First Casualty," by Phillip Knightley
"Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq," by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson
"War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters who Covered Vietnam," a collection of essays from several of these women, including Kate Webb, Tad Bartimus, Edith Lederer, Laura Palmer, etc.