Despite the fact that television coverage of the war with Iraq is often written about as if it were monolithic, there are differences channel to channel.
As television networks and all-news cable channels settled in for the longer haul in their coverage of the war with Iraq this week, important distinctions came into focus. None is more important than the difference between CNN and the Fox News Channel.
While Fox has steadfastly championed the Pentagon's take on how the war has been going, CNN has been more skeptical and independent in its coverage. The differences could be clearly seen yesterday in the work of two veteran correspondents and anchormen, Geraldo Rivera on Fox, and Wolf Blitzer of CNN.
"I flew in early this morning with elements of the 101st Airborne Division to their forward headquarters base deep inside Iraqi territory," Rivera announced in a taped report yesterday on Fox.
"Because Saddam's irregular forces are still making travel along the main road extremely dangerous, often impossible, many worried that our long supply lines would become untenable and overextended. But, in a monumental logistic achievement that may some day come to rank alongside the Berlin Airlift, the people in charge of supply are managing to beat both the desert and the guerrilla fighters."
Rivera was then joined on-screen by a soldier.
"This is Brig. Gen. Charlie Fletcher ... he's the man in charge of keeping our forces supplied with food, water and ammunition."
Turning to Fletcher, Rivera said, "So, here we are in the middle of the desert, [with] many of the critics back in their armchairs in Washington talking about the long and tenuous supply line, [but] you're saying that's a bunch of bunk."
Blitzer, on the other hand, summarized CNN's report on the same issue with the question, "Are supply lines stretched too thin?"
The moment yesterday that perhaps best illustrated CNN's approach to coverage vs. Fox came at 1:59 p.m., shortly after the Pentagon briefing from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"Now, even while the Pentagon was holding this briefing, there have been some disturbing pictures that have come in from a neighborhood in Baghdad," Blitzer said. "We're going to show you these pictures. They're very disturbing, and viewer discretion is advised."
As videotape from Abu Dhabi TV showed a teen-age boy lying in a hospital bed and moaning, Blitzer said, "According to Iraqi officials, including a hospital official in this Al Shula neighborhood, they claim, they claim that at a U.S. airstrike landed a bomb killing 51 people, maybe more, injuring another 50 people or so."
As the camera panned down the boy's body to show bloody, bandaged legs and feet, Blitzer continued: "CNN has spoken to a general manager of a nearby hospital who says this was just civilians going about their day-to-day activities.
"Now, we have not been able to get any U.S. military response. We're going to be working on that. But once again, the Iraqis [are] accusing the U.S. of bombing this civilian neighborhood in Baghdad. We'll have much more on this story coming up."
Those images, which carried an extra punch coming on the heels of Rumsfeld's insistence that Iraqis do see Americans as liberators but are afraid to show it as long as Saddam Hussein is in power, were not aired yesterday afternoon on the Fox News Network.
Nor did Fox carry any but the briefest of reports of protests against the war elsewhere in the world, especially Arab countries. CNN, on the other hand, has shown viewers more of the protests than any other American channel except Worldlink TV, a satellite service seen in 20 million American homes.
While both channels claim to be objective in their coverage, the ideological difference is not hard to discern. And, as long as that difference is understood by viewers, they are served rather than shortchanged by having such choice from the two leading all-news channels.
One of the more significant television journalism stories of the war will be whether CNN stays the course with such coverage.
Whereas the Gulf War of 1991 sent ratings for CNN soaring and made it a viable alternative to network news, it is the Fox News Channel that is winning the all-news ratings war so far. As of midweek, Fox News Channel was averaging 4.16 million viewers each day, while CNN was drawing 3.74 million. That might not sound like much of a gap, but the pie is relatively small for all-news cable TV, and 420,000 viewers a day is a big difference.
The question is whether it is enough of a difference that AOL Time Warner, the corporate parent, will push CNN coverage in the direction of Fox's as the war continues.