For Americans riveted to the nation's first real-time television war, Friday was a day of stunning contrasts and emotional swings from the warm and fuzzy to the frightfully destructive.
Only a few short hours after viewers saw an emotional conversation between Sgt. Joe Todd, of the Army's Third Infantry Division in Iraq, and his wife, Rosa, in NBC's "Today" show studios in New York, they witnessed the onset of the fearsome "shock and awe" bombing campaign that left Baghdad ablaze and choking with thick clouds of smoke.
The realities of today's coverage are such that by the time U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld convened an afternoon briefing and announced that the air war began "a few minutes ago," millions of Americans had already been watching bombs demolish sites in Baghdad for half an hour.
The much anticipated aerial bombardment of the Iraqi capital began about 1 p.m. EST and was carried live into living rooms, complete with the breathless, nervous voices of the few correspondents still in a city quaking with explosions and illuminated by powerful flashes of light.
"This is real," shouted Peter Arnett on NBC. "This is 'shock and awe.' One building after another is going down." Responded worried anchor Tom Brokaw: "Are you OK, Peter?"
Reporting for ABC, freelancer Richard Engel declared, "These are big, very big explosives and ordnance coming down," prompting anchor Peter Jennings to tell him to head for shelter "the minute you feel you want to." Sky News correspondent David Chater described the scene on both Fox News Channel and CBS, calling the images of bombing "a dreadful sight."
The news organization that suffered bad timing was CNN — the last U.S.-based television outlet to have its own staff members in Baghdad — which saw its journalists kicked out of that city Friday by Iraqi authorities. Reuters reported that the Iraqis had accused the cable network of being a propaganda vehicle, but CNN officials declined to comment.
Clearly sensitive to the power of those images of destruction, Rumsfeld stressed at his briefing that the bombs being dropped "have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a previous conflict." He also cautioned perspective and context in describing scenes from a war that has generated unprecedented live media coverage. "More people in the world have access to what is taking place," he declared.
Some of that access is the result of the journalists embedded in military units who have yet to encounter dramatic scenes of combat, but who are producing valuable pieces of the war puzzle and providing some very human moments as well.
In a brief interview with the Boston Globe, CNN's Jason Bellini, who is with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr Friday, half-jokingly compared the military experience "to extreme camping."
Discussing the psychological aspects of traveling with U.S. troops during wartime, Bellini added that "the excitement that they're feeling, we've been feeling as well. . . . They've sort of included us into their family. It felt like we were going to war with them as peers."
Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at jurkowitz@Globe.com.