As networks and their affiliates yesterday tried to return to a more normal schedule dominated by advertiser-supported entertainment programming, the war coverage on cable channels took a turn toward the negative. It was in sharp contrast to the optimistic coverage seen across the dial Friday as U.S. bombs and missiles rocked Baghdad and analysts speculated on a fast and easy victory.
Images of corpses and POWs identified as American and shown elsewhere in the world Sunday also seem to have led some cable channels yesterday not only to question the American war effort more sharply, but to defy the Pentagon when it came to airing information and images of captives.
As CNN aired the names of four POWs without Pentagon permission yesterday, World- Link TV showed videotape of two captured American pilots whose helicopter was shot down. WorldLink, often overlooked in media analyses, is seen via satellite in 19 million of the 106 million American television homes and is representative of the way in which an increasingly wired media world is going to make it very difficult for the Pentagon to control information.
The new, more critical tone could be seen on CNN at 5 p.m. as Wolf Blitzer offered a headline summary of coverage in the hour ahead.
"Coming up on CNN, American POWs caught in Iraqi hands. See tapes shown on Iraqi TV," Blitzer said. "And the staggering cost of war in dollars and lives. And reaction to the war around the world: the protests that just don't stop coming."
ABC's evening newscast with Peter Jennings carried some of the same tone.
"Two more Americans captured, their helicopter down, and so many [aircraft] coming back full of bullet holes," Jennings said in his opening summary. "Plus the pictures of the POWs - so public now, so much pain for the families."
After a weekend of mainly conforming to Pentagon demands that kept most images of American capture and death off television, CNN had anchorwoman Judy Woodruff explain on-air how and why the cable channel was breaking with such Pentagon restraint.
"Yesterday [Sunday], CNN decided not to air any video of the captured soldiers until CNN was certain the families of the POWs had been contacted," Woodruff said. "Now the Pentagon has asked that those interviews not be shown [at all]. But CNN has decided ... that we would air brief audio of the POWs, because coverage of their treatment is an important part of coverage of the war in Iraq."
CNN's Brian Cabell went on to name four of the POWs even though the Pentagon had not given official notification that the families had been informed. As Woodruff explained, CNN had done its own confirming with the four families and was no longer willing to wait on the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, MSNBC was carrying dinner-hour reports from sister channel CNBC about "the Dow dropping hundreds of points apparently in connection with the bad news in the war."
But nowhere was the evening news worse than on Journal, WorldLink's 5 p.m. international broadcast from DW TV in Berlin. The program carried a number of reports that essentially characterized the United States as an arrogant aggressor that was starting to meet some determined resistance. While cable channels like Fox blacked out the faces of the two captured helicopter pilots, Journal showed them full face.
Between channels like Al-Jazeera, which is in 140,000 American homes, and WorldLink, the question seemed inescapable last night: How long can the Pentagon expect American networks and channels to abide by its wishes for restraint?