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Baghdad may have fallen, but here we are again: straggling through Middle Eastern cities in a seemingly interminable conflict, hunting Saddam Hussein, watching Christiane Amanpour report live from the field and Peter Arnett come under fire for traitorous behavior. Still, for the civilian at home getting information from television news, Operation Iraqi Freedom feels nothing like Operation Desert Storm. The new TV landscape is at once diffuse and pinpoint-specific. The manner of reportage has brought viewers zoom-lens-close to both the action and the downtime. And though it’s true that Sept. 11, 2001, upped the stakes horrifically for this war, frankly, this time around the exploding Middle East is putting on a much more entertaining show.
You can argue that last point in terms of taste, but it’s irrefutableand morally correctto find images of war compelling viewing. The situation couldn’t and shouldn’t feel ordinary. Of course, it’s TV news’s job to report the truth, but any profit-making entertainment venue has an obligation to keep eyeballs loyal, and the networks, cable-news channels, and even morning shows have adapted to new technologies so ably that not a moment goes by when something of note isn’t happening on the box.
We can thank the crawl for some of that: War-specific broadcasts keep information threading across the bottom of the screen at an incredible rateit may be a product of an overcaffeinated, multitasking, byte-sipping culture, but it does cram in an awful lot of stuff the viewer glued to Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t otherwise learn about. Satellite images and videophones actually do what news shows used to promise: bring you the news as it happens. Night-vision lenses don’t just work for after-dark alliance-making on Survivor: They bring us images of startling immediacy, made all the more haunting for the alien green landscapes the technology makes of grand beige desert vistas.
If a reporter isn’t standing wind-whipped in the midst of a sandstorm, his voice lagging seconds behind his lips, then he’s cracking open MREs (another vastly improved technologylook, Ma, no Spam!) with the troops or picking through the heartbreaking rubble of the National Museum accompanied by its inconsolable deputy director. And before similar images appeared in newspapers, late-night TV viewers saw Republican Guard troops, some in their underwear, sneaking along the Tigris to evade the U.S. tanks puttering in the background. TV has been upgrading its battlefield coverage since Vietnam’s became the first “television war,” and it’s either one hell of a war or one hell of a medium that can make viewers think, Damn, I wish I’d seen that.
Blanket coverage and the sense of intimacy-in-adversity also bring us close to the people who report the newsafter spending enough evenings huddling with Amanpour, you feel as if you at least owe her dinner for her poised and valiant reporting. It’s this sense of familiarity, no doubt, that prompted sighs in the direction of Gulf I’s “Scud Stud,” Arthur Kent, who’s back reporting to absolutely no acclaim, retrospectively validating my Desert Storm affection for floppy-haired British reporter Martin Fletcher. This time around, aim all panties at CNN’s wiry, Byronic Kevin Sites, who is courageously reporting, even as I type, on his attack, capture, and near-abduction on his way to Tikritwhich is a far cry from Fletcher’s panicked donning of a gas mask as he reported from Israel. (If only Fox News Channel’s William la Jeunesse would get himself into trouble, I’d be his for life.)
But that this year’s conflict offers both a wider range of people to feel irrationally familiar with and a bunch of newfangled gadgetry reveals one of the problems of TV’s current more-is-more model: The more information we get, the more sources bringing it to us, the less real continuity we can find in the progress of the fighting. After more than three weeks of watching, we still know only what They want to tell uswhich isn’t so much a function of propaganda as it is of laziness.
All those embedded journalists give us a fragmented view of the war: a group holding a bridge, a supply truck’s travailsa vivid world away from Operation Vague Orange Glow Over Riyadh only 12 years ago. But the television industry creates or chooses the story of the day. Crawls aside, our glut of news is amazingly static from channel to channel. One day, it’s the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. The next, a suicide bombing that takes out Allied troops. Then the toppling of the damn statuean image whose resonance can be measured by how quickly America’s editorial cartoonists raced to their drawing boards to parody it.
Everyone, it seems, is talking trash, from Moneyline’s Lou Dobbs (“Hanoi Jane is back!”) to the Iraqi foreign minister (“There are no troops in Baghdad”) to Donald Rumsfeld (on the looting of the antiquities museum: “We don’t ‘allow’ bad things to happen. Bad things happen in life”). Bill O’Reilly, so reliable a liberal adversary in peacetime, is reduced to trying to paint Madonna as a traitor for merely shooting the provocative video for “American Life”even after she nixed its release. (“She’s 44 years old!” he cried. No spin, indeed.)
When Bill O’Reilly is forced to yell at Madonna, you know the consensus has scooched over to his side of the bench, leaving him nowhere to go. One of the casualties of this war for those back home is perspective. Given no World War II-style tasks to keep the coalition machine grinding, no Victory Gardens or sealing of loose lips, we’re left with little to do but negotiate intangibles, such as which attitudes and behaviors acceptably manifest patriotism.
Among the fallacies of the current definition of patriotism outside the TV bubble is that dissent on the timing of the war equals a death wish for our boys, pansyish French-love, and a hatred for America. But TV pleases rightists and leftists alike by showing images of Saddam’s insanely gauche palace interiors (“like something out of Disney World,” as correctly described on NBC’s Today) and the hackle-raising sight of lieutenants kissing his hateful hand. It isn’t jingoism but our sense of democratic justice that rejoices in seeing that sadistic little fucker Uday’s home stripped bare by gleeful looters. If only the good Dr. Seuss could go to war for us now:
They’ve got his fantoozlits, his faucets, his rugs!
They’re stripping his home of its gubbitygugs,
They’re taking his wine, his Margaux and Cristal,
They’re shoving his washing machine down a hall!
Watch the news in bits and pieces and it feels not only well-balanced but as disjointed and incoherent as it, well, isnot for nothing does an information-saturated society adopt a term like “the fog of war.” But channel-surf through every waking hour for a broad overview, and a smug, self-congratulatory tone emerges, particularly on CNN. The shift is in the details: Its decision, for example, to use the term “homicide bombing.” Or its jaw-dropping caption stating that the decision to use tanks in Baghdad was prompted by the network’s own images of Iraqis celebrating the resistance with which coalition forces had been met south of the city.
Images of children looting their school and ripping up everything in sight, including photographs of Saddam, are cast as “utter contempt” for the leader by CNN reporter Ben Wedeman, whose voice drips with melodrama while he ignores the possibility that the photo-rippers may just be acting like kids with an utter contempt for fractions and poopy teachers. Worse, CNN touts an upcoming report on “the young American who caught the world’s attention” in a “shot seen ’round the world”that idiot who draped a U.S. flag over the head of the Saddam statue in Firdaus Square.
CNN’s coverage is no different ideologically from Fox News Channel’s or MSNBC’s, except that FNC proudly gives us the absurdity of Around the World in 80 Secondsreports from Whocaresistan and Sowhatumburg that a newsreader zips through, not bothering even to sit down, while a clock ticks off the seconds like a speed-skater’s timekeeper. And all the news channels have trotted out their favorite trick ponies. Now is a golden time for self-proclaimed guest experts and visiting pundits, but new faces are few; most producers are intent on exhuming every grizzled player from administrations of yore. Death-pool bets are being settled across the nation as Alexander Haig’s enormous head looms into view on CNN, and an upcoming James Baker interview on Inside Politics is plugged with as much enthusiasm as MTV getting Britney to VJ for a day.
But what the news folks, with their lust for big names and long titles, don’t get is that war brings its own gravitas. The much-disparaged human-interest reporters, by contrast, recognize that something dramatictracer fire, a paranoid reporter in unneeded protection gear, the president speakingisn’t necessarily evocative.
Counterintuitively, it’s the morning twinkies and their human-interest coverage that shine light into corners of this conflict that we simply aren’t seeing on the hard-news shows. Today, for example, presented a beautiful and moving report by Anne Thompson on war photographers. Thompson illuminated the participation of 23-year-old Time photog Ben Lowry, Time’s Kate Brooks, the New York Times’ Jim Hill, and others by linking bits of their biographies to the most telling visions of their lenses, and the sentimentality evoked by the photos’ poignant familiarity was neutralized by the natural acid of the subjects. The report also cleverly drew the viewer’s eye to the print media we’re supposedly bypassing in favor of TV.
What makes such lowest-common-denominator stories work is that part of TV’s entertainment value is attributable to the way it draws from ready-tapped depths of feeling. Be inspired, saddened, or appalled, as your politics dictate; that’s not an ignoble thing, even in these sensitive times. Sometimes freedom really does look like a teenager’s right to laugh over fries with her friends. CP