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TV stations, Web sites exercise little restraint


As happened with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad, some American news organizations yesterday covered the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with marked enthusiasm, verging on inappropriate glee.

Perhaps the tone was set by the cheering and sustained applause by Iraqis at the Baghdad news conference announcing al-Zarqawi's death. But American television didn't have to follow that gung-ho lead to the extent that some channels did throughout the day.

The 24-hour cable news channels and their Web sites were the worst offenders, though other news organizations shared that lack of proportion and restraint.

On the MSNBC site, pictures of the dead insurgent's face ran under banner headlines that said, "Terminated." The framing of al-Zarqawi's face suggested a Wanted poster from the Old West - or recalled film images of the hanging of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini near the end of World War II.

On Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends, anchorman Chris Wallace said of al-Zarqawi, "This is the baddest man in the world - we shouldn't forget that."

Visitors to CNN's Web site, meanwhile, were urged to play video of the bombing run that killed al-Zarqawi, with U.S. Gen. George W. Casey's voice walking them through the landscape: "The lead aircraft is going to engage [the site] momentarily with a 500-pound bomb on the target." It was the most-played video of the day at www.cnn.com.

"I think it's important for the American media not to turn this into a Star Search kind of a thing where you have one super-celebrity in al-Zarqawi and you make a huge deal out it, when the fact is that the insurgency is so much more complicated," said Philip Seib, author of Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War.

Asserting that even some of the network news coverage featured story lines more appropriate to prime-time dramas than real-world news, Seib said: "I'm not saying al-Zarqawi's death is trivial - it's an important development - but parts of the media just get caught up in it and are falling all over themselves to show the dead body and the bombs and make it into much more than it is in terms of its importance to the overall insurgency and military effort."

David Zeeck, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, described such coverage as "simplistic but understandable."

"As a one-time event, the killing of Zarqawi is pretty much unalloyed good news," said Zeeck, who is executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. "But lots of key figures in al-Qaida have been captured or killed, and yet the jihad continues."

"It's not our job in the news business to gloat. Our job is to deal with an event like this in a measured way."

Thomas C. Leonard, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the Pentagon's images of the air raid, shown repeatedly on television and on Web sites yesterday, recalled the first Gulf War and the early stages of the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

But that kind of coverage, he said, "is very selective and tells you very little about collateral damage and impact on civilians."

The question of whether to use footage provided exclusively by the government "is a familiar problem for us," Leonard said. "But did it have news value? Yes, of course it did."

There was also at least one example of exemplary coverage, in the work of ABC News, which broke into regular programming at 2:38 a.m. yesterday to announce the death of al-Zarqawi - 29 minutes before the next station to do so, MSNBC.

ABC got the scoop on other news operations, thanks to a tip received by Martha Raddatz, its chief White House correspondent, at 2:15 a.m. Even though she was on vacation, Raddatz reported the story over the phone for the network.

Reporting rather than hype seemed to be the mantra at ABC, with the network offering the most proportional, understated and informed coverage.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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