Which comes first, the chicken or the nest egg? Reporters and investors were both unsurprisingly jumpy during the first week of the Iraq War. Wall Street was bullish on Friday and some journalists on Saturday made it seem that the caissons would keep rolling along all the way into Baghdad, with flowers strewn in their path by adoring Iraqis. Wall Street tanked on Monday, March 24, after many reporters found that war is hell and started suggesting that U.S. tanks wouldn't make it; some who were shot at seemed understandably frightened.
At mid-week both stocks and news reports fluctuated wildly. When inexperienced journalists offered Chicken Little reports about Iraqi Republican Guard columns streaming south from Baghdad, stock prices headed south. When numerous military analysts said it would be great if Iraqi forces were on the move, because it's easier to hit targets in the open desert than hidden in city trenches, stocks rebounded.
On March 26 there was still time to get in on the ground floor of "Iraq quagmire" stories. Reporters generally were holding back from trotting out the Vietnam WarÐera expression, either because they respected the fastest advance in military history or because they were not ready to commit the literary gaffe of calling a desert a quagmire. But the Chicago Tribune in advance of new battles was already bringing out old whine: the possibility of a "protracted, Vietnam-style quagmire of unceasing casualties and unclear lines between combatants and civilians." (The Tribune modestly ascribed that nightmarish painting to Saddam Hussein, not itself.)
Many embedded reporters were following another generation-old adage: If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with-especially when that person saves your life. The liveliest story came from Newsweek's Scott Johnson, who headed out on his own with a photographer and came under fire, only to have his life saved by an American convoy. His article ended, "I'm basically embedded now. I don't have much chance of going independent again and, to be honest, I don't know if I want to."
The experience of being shot at may concentrate wonderfully the herd of independent minds within America's elite media force, the Democratic Guard. So may the experience of seeing that Iraqi soldiers brutalize prisoners of war and hold their own civilians hostage. Can facts overcome presuppositions, and will journalists who opposed the war screech, "I told you so," as fighting intensifies? The big media surprise was that CBS overall seemed to be doing a decent job, and one far superior to carping ABC and NBC. Unsurprisingly, Fox generally gave positive stories about the American war effort, CNN and NPR negative ones, and Arab media lying ones.