A Disruptive Force? A Case Study Of The Televised Coverage Of The 2003 Iraq War


The 2003 Iraq War had the dubious honour of being the most televised war in history. Over 1,000 media personnel – on the ground, in the air and at sea – would ensure that the viewer at home would not miss a single gunshot. To do so, no expense was spared. CNN had an estimated budget of $35 million to assist in the twofold task of conducting ambitious blanket coverage and battling its rival Fox News in the ratings. Similarly, even the British broadcasting companies inflated their budgets by a staggering £22 million (Knightley 2004, 529). During the 1991 Iraq War, CNN was the only live network in Baghdad, accordingly monopolizing coverage of the war and assuming responsibility for how the conflict was framed. However, in the 2003 war, this monopoly was no more with over twenty networks broadcasting from Baghdad (Kamalipour and Snow 2004, 71).

The nature of the coverage had also changed drastically since 1991. With advances in technology, most broadcasters televised the war in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The conflict was also characterized as “an Internet war, a digital camera war, a satellite phone war” (Sylvester 2005, 187).  The conflict witnessed renewed cooperation between the military and press. This collaboration resulted in the introduction of the embedment program. At the height of the 2003 conflict there were 775 reporters embedded with the U.S. forces (Sylvester 2005, 54). Approximately 61% of these embedded reporters broadcasted live (PEJ 2003, 2).

However, despite this blanket coverage and unprecedented access to frontline action, this paper shall seek to address whether these factors were deleterious to the media’s responsible handling of the war. To do so, Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes’ integrative-disruptive theoretical framework (Katz and Liebes 2007) shall be utilized as a central reference point in this analysis. Are Katz and Liebes justified in calling modern day broadcasters a disruptive, “invasive force” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 164) who are preoccupied with action, death and drama? If such an accusation is true, does this negatively impact the broadcaster’s responsibility as an objective, independent disseminator of news?

In formulating a response to these questions, this paper shall examine Katz and Liebes’ notion of what constitutes a “media event”, and how they believe this concept has deteriorated over time. Using the case study of the 2003 Iraq War, this analysis shall draw upon a body of literature that includes testimony from historians and journalists, such as Phillip Knightley (2004), Howard Tumber (2004), and Deborah Jaramillo (2009). This paper will also attempt to the following: put the 2003 conflict into historical context by examining the U.S. government’s motives for invading; analyze the impact of constant live, unedited televised coverage on accuracy and the audience; and using poll data, examine how coverage differed in the U.S. and U.K.

Media events and the integrative-disruptive theoretical framework

Katz and Liebes define a media event as a public ceremony, contest or conquest broadcast live on television (Katz and Liebes 2007, 158). The characteristics of a media event dictate that it be live, pre-planned, reverent, conciliatory, integrative, and demand the attention of the world. Katz and Liebes argue that prior to the 1970s, television was used to cover positive, unifying events like the landing of man on the moon or the Royal wedding of Charles and Diana. However, since the 1970s, they argued that there has been a decline in the morals of broadcasters. The mobility and ubiquity of television technology, and a rise in cynicism have “socialized us to ‘action’ rather than ceremony” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 159). Katz and Liebes blamed the increasing contest between competing broadcasters for having “scattered the audience and undermined the shared experience of broadcasting” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 159). Instead of positive, integrative programming, they argue that broadcasters now focus on more pernicious, disruptive events like war, terror and disaster, which are piped into our living rooms 24/7.

However, Katz and Liebes did not draw any reciprocal connections between the decline of integrative events and the rise of disruptive events. They do note however that broadcasters have made a distinct shift from a “bulletin mode” to a “disaster marathon” mode whereby “hours, sometimes days, [are] spent recycling gory portraits from the scene, [focusing] on the heroics of rescue and relief workers” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 160).  One need only look to the recent media spectacle in Chile of the trapped miners, or los 33, to corroborate this point. Katz and Liebes conclude with the argument that this extensive coverage has had a disruptive effect on Western society, tapping into latent discontent and cynicism. They argue that it fans post-9/11 paranoia, pressures governments into action, ‘routinizes’ violence (Liebes and Kampf 2004), and encourages terrorism. Furthermore, Katz and Liebes contend that live, marathon coverage does not allow journalists to present balanced and thoughtful work to their audience. Most significantly, they use the example of the embedding of journalists in the 2003 Iraq War, to stress the issues of covering conflict. They argue that the media were ‘handled’ and that the war was “staged” by the military.

The 2003 Iraq War In Context

After the earlier 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was always deemed to be unfinished business with Saddam Hussein still in power. This was arguably compounded by the events of 9/11. President Bush retaliated against Afghanistan, the logical first target since its Taliban government had harboured the alleged coordinator of the 9/11 attacks. However, even before this hunt for Osama bin Laden was under way, the Pentagon was already planning for a second invasion of Iraq. President Bush used the alleged presence of  “weapons of mass destruction” to justify the invasion. However, academic Douglas Kellner argued that “the Bush administration hid many agendas in its offensive against Iraq. To be re-elected, Bush needed a major victory and a symbolic triumph over terrorism to deflect from the failings of his regime both domestically and in the realm of foreign policy”  (Kellner 2004, 69).

At a press conference on March 6 2003, Bush adhered to simplistic rhetoric that spoke about good and evil, and why a war was justified against bin Laden and al Qaeda. In that one conference, he labeled Iraq as a “threat” sixteen times (Kamalipour and Snow 2004, 70). Philip Knightley also remarked on what was flawed, syllogistic logic. Knightley stated how “the argument went: Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator…he is working hard to acquire weapons of mass destruction and when he does, he will be prepared to use them…the only method he understands is force so we are therefore justified in a pre-emptive strike” (Knightley 2004, 527-528).

The resulting 2003 Iraq War saw the introduction of the embedding of journalists. This was arguably prompted by the highly publicized deaths of many civilians in Afghanistan, caused by American bombings (Knightley 2004, 530). Bryan Whitman, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence, surmised that the embedding program would incorporate the media into the war effort, give them unprecedented access to the frontlines, allow the military to keep tabs on the journalists and simultaneously win back some popular support lost by the events in Afghanistan.

However, this system had many critics. Knightley illustrated that most embedded reporters became emotionally attached to their units, and that he could find only two instances of accounts that were critical of U.S troops (Knightley 2004, 532). He also stressed that “the key was to ensure the right television footage and in case the embeds failed to get this, the Pentagon would use its own camera crews as back-up, editing the footage itself and then presenting it to broadcasters as a ‘ready-for-air’ package” (Knightley 2004, 534). Kellner, using the phrase “in bed” as a play on the word “embed”, argued that these journalists “trumped any paid propagandist” (Kellner 2004, 72). Author Christopher Paul also referred to the ‘soda-straw’ view of the war that embedded journalists invariably had. Like a ‘soda-straw’, “embedded coverage is potentially very ‘deep’ and detailed, [but] it is unlikely to be very broad by its nature” (Paul and Kim 200, 111). Essentially, this approach allows journalists to see but one small part of the conflict without knowledge of the greater context.

Such criticisms seem to vindicate the claims of Katz and Liebes that the war was staged, insomuch that “the obvious interest of Government is to keep journalists on its side by playing up the threat, and the evil of the enemy…disaster marathon it is, albeit of a different kind” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 163).  Deborah Jaramillo went so far as to claim that “the televisuality of the…war coverage eclipsed the actual events” (Jaramillo 2009, 1). She highlighted how CNN presenter Aaron Brown had to repeatedly assure viewers “that the coverage was ‘not a television program’ and ‘not a video game’” (Jaramillo 2009, 164), such was the extensive and stylized nature of the coverage. After the war a BBC documentary investigated the media spectacle that was the ‘rescue’ of Private Jessica. A doctor who was at the hospital told the BBC crew that “it was like a Hollywood film…they made a show – an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down the doors” (Thussu 2004, 96). The video was picked up and broadcast by most networks. Jaramillo argued that such constructed media events are dangerous because “the camera is so convincingly linked to the idea of objectivity that viewers simply do not perceive that the images are constructed” (Jaramillo 2009, 145).

This paper shall now examine two case studies: namely how the 2003 Iraq War was covered by broadcasters in the US and UK, focusing particularly on the larger corporations such as CNN, Fox, BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4. Both case studies will be continually juxtaposed with the integrative-disruptive theoretical framework of Katz and Liebes, in order to determine if the broadcasters do indeed now focus on blanket coverage of negative media events.

US Case Study: CNN and FOX

There have been two overriding criticisms of the televised coverage of the war by U.S. broadcasters: an unashamed jingoistic and sanitized framing of events that compromised the objectivity of journalists, and simple over-exposure. Kellner recalled how “entire networks, such as FOX and NBC cable networks, provided little but propaganda and one-sided patriotism, as did…CNN.” He added that this resulted in “highly sanitized views of the war, rarely showing Iraqi casualties, this producing a view of the war totally different from that shown in other parts of the world” (Kellner 2004, 73). CNN reporter Walter Rogers recalled how “the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree” when one of his reports showed a dead Iraqi (Kellner 2004, 75). It was as if the nation were in denial that it was even at war – such was the stylized coverage of the networks.

Knightley corroborated this view of how U.S. broadcasters “wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality” (Knightley 2004, 542). However, an equally deleterious problem was that of the constant stream of coverage. Knightley argued, “anyone so inclined could have spent 24-hours-a-day immersed in war news. There were more live pictures from the battlefield than for any previous war. Split screens, feeds from every front…interview after interview…then back to breaking news.” One member of the public joked that despite consuming all streams of media, they had “absolutely no clue how the war is going” (Knightley 2004, 543).

Despite these shortcomings, the popularity of 24-hour news was undeniable. In the first five days CNN’s audience increased by 393%, and FOX’s by 379% (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 7). It has been argued that FOX’s newfound popularity was largely due to its openly partisan nature, which is believed to better reflected public opinion than CNN’s more ‘neutral’ position. To illustrate this, a 2003 poll discovered that viewers of FOX were far more likely to be prone to certain misperceptions about the war. 80% of FOX viewers, compared to 55% of CNN viewers, were more likely to believe one or more of the following notions: that Iraq had links with al Qaeda; that there were weapons of mass destruction; that the war had global approval (Kull 2003, 13). Author Daya Thussu stated that such a willingness to believe the government and the pro-Republican, Murdoch-owned FOX was illustrated by the fact that 50 of the 56 guests on the show were self-confessed Republicans (Thussu 2004, 95). After the conflict ended, the viewing figures of both networks dropped by one to two million viewers (Jaramillo 2009, 185). On March 19 2003, both networks also suspended all advertising for the first two days of the war, thus highlighting the focus on war (Jaramillo 2009, 50). Such figures seem to lend weight to Katz and Liebes’ accusations of networks conducting “disaster marathons”.

These marathons resulted in the quest for constant breaking news, and thus created fierce competition between rival networks. Journalist Martin Bell stated how networks “aim to be the first and fastest with the news…some mistakes are bound to be made…and [they] compete wildly with each other to get their speculation in first” (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 11). Such was the concern for keeping viewers plugged in. Bell appealed for a return of journalistic principles, arguing that reporters should be more concerned with getting it right, rather than getting it first (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 12). Such views would hardly allay Katz and Liebes’ fears. They emphasized that the journalist needs the time and distance to reflect on events and to conduct further investigation (Katz and Liebes 2007, 164). Accounts that later proved to be false included reports of Iraqi-deployed drones being sent to the U.S to spread biological agents, and the discovery of weapons-grade plutonium (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 8). To be the first to break a story, perhaps the old adage should be changed to state that the first casualty in war is not truth, but accountability.

There was a constant, conscious need to try and keep viewers glued to the television; therefore networks were always on the search for visually appealing events. FOX’s Rita Cosby described the images of the bombing of Baghdad as “amazing”, whilst CNN’s Martin Savidge was heard to exclaim “F**k, this is good stuff!” during a series of explosions (Jaramillo 2009, 165 and169). Jaramillo concluded that “explosions draw viewers in, and that fact was not lost on CNN or FOX…they celebrated the images of the war apparatus unconditionally and gave little or no consideration to the lethal consequences of the bombs” (Jaramillo 2009, 165). Jaramillo even analyzed the theatrical and dramatic music of CNN’s news shows. The music, “ominous yet fast, playing at about 120 beats per minute…seemed to yell, ‘We’re at war!’” (Jaramillo 2009, 163).

In recent years with the rise of 24-hour news networks such as CNN, academics had long argued the existence of the so-called ‘CNN effect’ whereby the media can actually shape the decision-making of governments. Academic Piers Robinson referenced examples of humanitarian crises in Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Bosnia (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999) where intervention by foreign governments was preceded by media attention.  This would contradict Katz and Liebes’ claims that the coverage of war is disruptive. However, Robinson concludes that, if it ever existed, the ‘CNN effect’ is now waning (Robinson 2005, 346-347). He lists three reasons: the ‘war on terror’ has ensured humanitarian crises are no longer a priority; that intervention is no longer altruistic and must be driven by national interests; and lastly the increased efforts by governments to manage the information environment and news agenda.

The Project for Excellence on Journalism conducted research in 2005 to examine how U.S. broadcasters, including CNN and FOX, had covered the first six days of the conflict. The report concluded the following: that live reports accounted for 49% of all reports; 32% of on-screen action focused on military maneuvers and not battle scenes while depicting no human casualties; and 77% of reports only featured the reporter with no one else being interviewed (PEJ 2005, 1-4). These figures illustrate the disturbing trends of the reliance on spontaneous and potentially inaccurate reporting, a sanitized, surreal view of a war with no human loss of life and reports that were not corroborated on-screen by interviewees. The report also pointed out the emotional attachment of embedded reporters to their assigned units, that information overload was tantamount to just “noise” and how FOX news had resorted to the “game of telephone”, or repeating hearsay, in order to be the first to report a story (PEJ 2005, 9-11).

UK Case Study: BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4

How did U.K. broadcasters’ coverage of the conflict differ, if at all, from that in America? Kellner argues that the coverage shown on the different sides of the Atlantic effectively depiected two completely different wars. Kellner stated, “the U.S. networks tend to ignore Iraqi casualties, Arab outrage about the war, global antiwar and anti-U.S. protests, and the negative features of the war; however, the BBC…often featured these more critical themes” (Kellner 2004, 74). Professor Justin Lewis argued that whereby in the States networks like FOX pursued a right-leaning agenda, “British broadcasters are all obliged by – and publicly committed to – common notions of balance and impartiality” (Lewis 2006, 168). Furthermore six months prior to the war, public opinion polls in the U.K. suggested that only 30-40% of the population supported a war against Iraq (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 284).

Lewis conducted two interesting pieces of analytical research in 2003: the first was a content analysis of over 1,500 reports from the four main British television news sources (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky) in order to examine their patterns of coverage and to assess to what extent they had supported the government in the conflict; and the second was a national telephone survey of 1,000 people across Britain to gauge their assessment of the media’s coverage of the war, their memories of the war, and what they thought they knew about it. This paper shall review each in turn in order to critique the British media’s coverage of the 2003 Iraq War.

Lewis’ first analytical report uncovered some interesting trends. Firstly, he discovered that 36% of all the reports contained references to at least one of the three themes central to the government’s case. 25% of the reports focused on the Iraqi people, 8% on weapons of mass destruction and 7% on the depravity of Hussein’s regime (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 290). It also seems that, like many of the U.S. reports, a vast majority of them were not corroborated. In fact all four networks used government and military sources for approximately 46% of their reports. Official Iraqi sources were only used in 30% of the reports, and the views of Iraqi citizens in only 7% of reports.

A staggering 91% of all the studied reports also suggested that Iraq owned weapons of mass destruction. However, it must be noted that 96% of Sky’s reports supported the notion that such weapons existed, compared to only about a cautious third of all BBC reports. In addition, 39% of all reports referring to the Iraqi populace suggested that they welcomed the invasion or the toppling of Hussein. Lewis also discovered that all of the four networks only had approximately 13-17% of their reports coming from embedded reporters. In comparison, 40-57% were reports delivered by news anchors. Lewis suggested that “news anchors, highly trusted by the public according to surveys, were overwhelmingly more likely to give the impression that the Iraqi people welcomed U.S./U.K. military intervention.” Therefore it seems that the number of reports, and the abuse of trust traditionally bestowed upon the news anchor, were geared towards supporting and justifying the government’s invasion of Iraq (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 288-293).

Overall, Lewis’ study found the BBC to be rather more cautious in its coverage of the war, simply covering the war and steering clear of justifying it or dwelling on the presence of weapons. Channel 4 on the other hand did show more coverage critical of the government, such as Iraqi demonstrations and Iraqi casualties, and relied far less on government and military sources. The most pro-war British broadcaster was Sky, which portrayed Iraqis as welcoming the invasion, and was far less likely to question the presence of weapons of mass destruction than the other networks. It may be of little surprise that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of FOX News, also owned Sky News. Thussu expressed her concerns that the “Foxification” of news would become a global virus, where news would transform into infotainment. Thussu stated that “Sky is under constant pressure from its owner to treat news from conflict zones as drama and as an event…though less belligerent than FOX, [Sky] acted as a morale booster for the British troops in the theatre of war” (Thussu 2004, 98). However, Lewis suggested that whilst these networks “did not submit to the kind of cheerleading that characterized much of the U.S. network coverage…the wartime coverage was [still] generally fairly sympathetic to the government’s case” Allan and Zelizer 2004, 298).

Lewis’ second piece of research, the national telephone survey, discovered a similar trend amongst the consumers of news in U.K. His data shows that support for the war increased from 46% before the war, to 83% during the war. This then dropped again to 44% by September 2003 (Lewis 2006, 160). The increase in support was allegedly not due to any epiphany, but a patriotic desire to support the British troops. The decrease was attributed to the fact that 50% of the people interviewed stated that after the war they had felt misled by the media and government for the reasons for the conflict.

Lewis’ survey uncovered another interesting fact. The BBC was the most relied upon news source by almost identical numbers of both war supporters and war opponents. This contrasted greatly with the viewership of the Murdoch-owned Sky News, where war supporters more than doubled war opponents. Lewis also stipulated that war opponents were more likely to watch more than one news source.

Most people who took the survey also reported an increase in how much news they consumed at the start of the 2003 conflict. However, 61% of people complained of  “news fatigue” setting in. One subject stated how “I did end up getting bored with it and fed up with what was going on, all the killings, it was a bit much to watch it all the time.” A number of women also stated that they had started to avoid coverage out of concern for the pernicious effects it could have on their children (Lewis 2006, 176). Such viewpoints seem to only endorse the fears of Katz and Liebes; that the marathon coverage of war was disruptive and intruding upon peoples’ lives.

Lewis’ survey highlighted two other interesting points. Firstly, the British viewer seemed more discerning than the U.S. viewer in what they wanted coverage of. 35% of people who took the survey stated there was too much footage from the battlefield. As a result 42% stated they wanted more coverage for the reasons behind the war, compared to 8% who wanted to see action from the front. Secondly, Lewis conceded that the survey illustrated that, as in the U.S., the coverage of the war too sanitized. One man stated, “it’s like watching a film” (Lewis 2006, 181).

Lastly, the survey suggested the sinister fact that people only seem to recall the media events that were allegedly manufactured. Asked to name what they could remember from the media coverage of the war, 80% of the people who took the survey named the toppling of Hussein’s statue in central Baghdad. Knightley described this event, which was staged by the U.S. military, as symbolically marking “the end of Saddam Hussein and the coalition victory” (Knightley 2004, 544). Lewis suggests this was the most memorable event due to the amount of coverage the media afforded it, its iconic nature and that this moment signified the ‘end’ of the war for many viewers.


Before concluding whether the televised coverage of the 2003 Iraq War was a disruptive media event, there is first a need to reiterate what Katz and Liebes meant by this term. Unlike the traditional, positive and conciliatory media events of yesteryear, Katz and Liebes argued that burgeoning cynicism and disenchantment in society led to a preoccupation with more negative events like disasters and wars. This led to a fracturing of the audience and a decline of the media event as a familial occasion. Katz and Liebes state that advancements in technology also contributed to the decline in media programming as networks have multiplied, increasing competition and the need to seize viewers’ loyalty with sensationalist disaster marathons. This marathon coverage would also negatively impact the objectivity of the journalist, not affording them the opportunity to distance themselves from the unfolding events. Katz and Liebes also argued that, particularly post-9/11, paranoia is more prevalent and that governments are “building on such events to legitimate their trigger-happy interventionism” (Katz and Liebes 2007, 160).

Sadly, this paper has illustrated that the majority of the accusations levelled at the media by Katz and Liebes can be corroborated. Admittedly some of their views are somewhat anachronistic – particularly their surprise at the decline in interest in ceremonial events – but for the most part their views are vindicated. The 2003 Iraq War was, in many ways, a media event: it was live; had a global audience and interrupted everyday life and everyday broadcasting. However, the coverage can hardly be labeled as preplanned, integrative or conciliatory.

Instead, in the U.S. particularly, the viewer was subjected to partisan, gung-ho, titillating, paranoid journalism that toed the government line. The embedding program was a calculated success for the military. The military gave the impression of giving unrestricted access, whilst still controlling to some extent what the journalists did or did not see. This in turn filtered what the viewer saw. Journalist Jeff Gralnick reminded his colleagues “you are not being embedded because that sweet old Pentagon wants to be nice. You are being embedded so you can be controlled and in a way isolated” (Tumber and Palmer 2004, 51). The military were quite aware of the sort of ‘Stockholm syndrome’ that would develop between a journalist and his assigned unit. Journalist Clarence Page warned of being “so seduced by their camaraderie with troops, even while under fire, that they [the journalist] lose sight of what their audience back home needs to know” (Tumber and Palmer 2004, 52).  Another journalist, Geoffrey York, argued that unless you were an embedded reporter, your job was made all the more difficult by the U.S. military. York recounted how ‘unilaterals’ were unable to secure interviews with military personnel and had limited access to Allied-held zones (quoted in Tumber and Palmer 2004, 33).

Even in the U.K., where coverage was somewhat more balanced, the four main broadcasters still refrained from being overly critical of the government, at least during the conflict. Thussu stated that “the drive to deliver audiences to advertisers in a fiercely competitive market can lead 24-hour news to sensationalization and trivialization of often complex stories and a temptation to highlight the entertainment value of news” (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 101). Coverage, in the U.S. and U.K., was highly repetitive, sanitized and propagated government misperceptions. Instead of ‘breaking news’, journalists were often under pressure to ‘break rumour’. This often resulted in the dissemination of uncorroborated hearsay, warped by the absence of time for the journalist to process what they had heard or witnessed. Thussu concluded that ultimately in the 2003 Iraq War, the media was indeed a disruptive force. She lamented “the framing of news in terms of infotainment is likely to become more widespread…this bodes ill at a time when there is a pressing need for sober comment and analysis rather than rash and jingoistic journalism” (Thussu 2004, 99).