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War brings home global power of the media

Reality TV will never seem the same after this.

I don't watch those shows, but I have to believe that even those who do will find them a little boring from now on. Some contrived "Fear Factor" stunt will seem a little pathetic after watching real men and women in life-or-death struggles in the Iraqi desert.

I don't know who in the Pentagon decided it would be a good idea to "embed" reporters with coalition soldiers, but it was a master stroke. It's been good for the people at home, who have an inherent right to know how their government is conducting war. And it is good for the U.S. government, at least as long as the war is successful.

In an age where information of all types is as plentiful as the pellets of sand swirling around advancing forces last week, Pentagon officials really didn't have much choice. They could either spend each news conference trying to confirm or deny reports from elsewhere on things happening at the front, or put reporters in place with the soldiers, under conditions that restrict them from divulging only the most sensitive information.

If you doubt the global power of the information age, consider this: While the U.S. government last week successfully urged American television to refrain from showing Iraqi video of U.S. prisoners of war until families of the prisoners could be notified, the mother of one of those soldiers learned the truth about her son anyway by watching the tape on Filipino TV — from her home in New Mexico.

Using the Internet, people all over the world can watch coverage of the war from all over the world. And they often can check facts on their own. When Donald Rumsfeld said Iraq had violated terms of the Geneva Convention, millions of people could access the text of that convention agreement at one of several different sites online.

That wasn't the case during the Gulf War.

The old adage was that war's first casualty is truth. Perhaps, in the 21st century, the adage should be that war's most ineffective tool is propaganda. This is not a good time for regimes that rely on controlling information.

Of course, the Pentagon likely had other, more selfish reasons for embedding reporters. In a quick and decisive victory, those reporters would be eyewitnesses to the good things — the humane treatment of the surrendering enemy and the gratitude of liberated Iraqis. The question is how the policy will work if things don't go so well.

Last week, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the embedding program showed the government's commitment to letting the American public know what's going on, whether it is good or bad. But we haven't really seen anything bad yet.

And then there is the bigger question. Do the American people really want to know the truth, particularly if it happens to be bad?

I'm not so sure. I came to work Monday to find e-mail from readers who did not appreciate our recent coverage. One listed several Deseret News headlines from the weekend — headlines over stories about casualties, Iraqi resistance and the diminished hopes for a quick surrender — and asked, "Does the printing of these stories support our efforts?"

I also fielded phone calls and e-mail from people upset with a recent syndicated column by Georgie Anne Geyer, who feels strongly that this war is a mistake. Geyer happened to be in Salt Lake last week, and she met with the Deseret News editorial board. She has impressive credentials, having covered world events for decades. She told us about her interview with Saddam Hussein in 1973, a man she described as brutal and not very bright. But she thinks President Bush is making a horrible mistake.

I happen to disagree with her views, but I think they deserve to be aired, and I think Americans ought to be tolerant enough to at least allow her the space to air them.

Perhaps Americans have always been a bit too exuberant at the start of a war. At the first battle of Bull Run, the Civil War's first real engagement, spectators from nearby Washington D.C., rode in their buggies and carts to witness what they felt sure would be a decisive victory for the Union. They ended up horrified and in a rush to get home after the battle turned into a rebel route. They had been given a quick lesson in the realties of war.

Today, we sit in front of our televisions much like those folks of 150 years ago. We are learning again that war, no matter how just the cause, is ugly. We also are learning that one day's bad news does not mean the cause is lost.

But we ought to want the truth, no matter what it is.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page.