Nov. 1, 2001 The Voice of the Times muses on media's role in the new war

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2001

The war against terrorism almost certainly will be one of the most unusual in American history.

The basics -- guns, bullets, planes, bombs, missiles and the people with the training and determination to use them -- won't be all that different. New technology will certainly have an impact, but every war has been different from the last in that respect.

But two things are greatly changed from previous struggles. One is the enemy's vastly improved ability to cause casualties among Americans on their own soil. Terrorist cells established within the country are putting American civilians on the front lines in a way never before experienced in the nation's history.

This will not be a struggle where all the blood is spilled on distant foreign soil, where those who face death say goodbye at the dock or the airport and head overseas to fight for freedom. America has already taken thousands of casualties in New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey -- and those seem unlikely to be the last.

Equally unusual this time is the instant reporting, polling and poll feedback by the news media. The communications available during the Gulf War were similar, but that struggle was relatively brief. It did not require the sustained commitment or civilian personal courage of the war against terrorist leaders and their murderous networks.

And to a large extent, because of instant feedback, the media polls are measuring the impact of the media's own words. The news people feed information and their own opinions to the public, then run an instant survey in which their own words come right back to them. It should be no surprise that public opinion may reflect what the public has just been told.

President Bush warned from the outset that this war would be long and difficult, but many media personalities already are fretting that the enemy hasn't surrendered yet, and here we are a full three weeks or so into the shooting.

Some of those media folks may be relatively young, but surely they know enough about history to realize that a long war is not one that gets over before the next phase of the moon. The toughest struggles have taken many years, and this one promises to be among the most difficult America has ever fought.

The national media are also inconsistent in how they report their own polls. The New York Times and CBS News did a joint poll this week. The Times headline on its story said ''Survey Shows Doubts Stirring on Terror War.'' The CBS website used the same data to report ''Support for War Effort Is Strong.''

A strange war, indeed.

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