By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like many of our reporters, he‘s from the region and has a strong accent. So you may want to listen a bit harder.
On September 11, everybody knew what the big story was. And in the month that followed, the news seemed to break into neatly compartmentalized themes. There was Why Do They Hate Us Week, Who Is Osama bin Laden Week, the Week of Biochemical Terror. If you believe the covers of Newsweek and Time, we’re now in the middle of Special Ops Week -- complete with ghostly night photos of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan -- but the center of the action has begun shifting like quicksand. As the War on Terror becomes the norm, it gets harder to be sure what the big story really is.
For much of last week, even after anthrax dusted the Capitol and the office of Dan Rather, most of us still felt relatively safe. Friends made ghoulish jokes about my head cold (which still, um, hasn‘t gone away), and the media tweaked their own relentless anthrax stories -- The Daily Show labeled its coverage ”America Freaks Out.“ This media overkill was reassuringly normal (”It’s almost as big as O.J.,“ an English friend said). Then Monday brought news that inhalation anthrax had killed workers at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C. Suddenly everyone started feeling spooked again. Maybe buying that copy of Germs wasn‘t potent enough juju. Maybe I should watch tonight’s Hardball.
Then again, maybe anthrax isn‘t even the most important news. While the media are naturally obsessed with the use of biological weapons within our country (and quite possibly the handiwork of homegrown terrorists), we’ve recently learned not to ignore things that happen outside our borders. Is this handful of anthrax cases really a bigger story than the assassination of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze‘evi and Israel’s subsequent invasion of the Palestinian West Bank? Is it bigger than those Special Forces attacks on Mohammed Omar‘s abandoned compound over the weekend? Bigger than Pakistan and India playing nuclear footsie over Kashmir? Beats me. And I don’t believe that Ted Koppel or William Kristol knows either. Our news map is being completely redrawn, and the whole media world may soon start chanting William Goldman‘s famous Hollywood mantra: Nobody knows anything.
Where the attack on the World Trade Center had an overpowering vividness -- we may never see more astonishing images in our lifetime -- we’re now mired in a twilight world of measly, frustrating footage: envelopes written in a child‘s hand, tires that may have come from a downed American chopper, flattened mud buildings that may have housed Afghan civilians, an endless procession of hedging officials in suits. Even when we do see something shocking -- 6-year-old Pakistani schoolchildren being trained to attack necktie-wearing effigies of Bush and Blair on 60 Minutes -- the image comes draped in ambiguity. You can’t tell whether you‘re watching tragedy or comedy so black that William Burroughs would whimper with envy.
Without clear images, the media seem lost. From what the Pentagon showed us, the raid of Mohammed Omar’s compound appeared less a military maneuver than a dress rehearsal or PR ploy -- the Special Forces zipped into empty buildings, gathered key ”intelligence“ (as yet untranslated) and then left the country amid claims that their mission had been a resounding success. But what did it really accomplish? Watching hours of TV in the days following this raid, I didn‘t hear a single reporter pose this question -- or complain about the government’s media management. But I did hear Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld gripe about classified information being leaked. Exactly what information? Such is American war reporting in the post-Vietnam era: You can turn on your TV at any time of the day or night and get the same official vagaries and pseudo-information. When our soldiers start to die in action, we‘ll probably learn about it first from Al Jazeera.
Back in the run-up to the Gulf War (which I hope won’t become known as Gulf War I), Margaret Thatcher sent an emissary to Washington to make sure that President George Bush didn‘t get all ”wobbly.“ The word is used often these days, especially by the conservative press, which fears that George W. Bush lacks the resolve to topple all the Middle Eastern governments that the hawks want overthrown. If it were up to William Safire, George Will and The Weekly Standard, Kabul would be just a22 a sleepover on the way to Baghdad.
I don’t know why the right‘s so worried. If anyone’s wobbly nowadays, it‘s the supposedly liberal media, which, in some spasm of patriotism and self-hatred, have spent the last six weeks trying to convince us that Bush is a leader of stature -- the new Prince Hal, a latter-day Truman. Call it an exercise in president building.
Even before the attacks, Bush had been given a distressingly free ride, but ever since his initial blunders (”folks,“ ”crusade,“ ”dead or alive“), he has been ferried from accolade to accolade. Dan Rather called Bush ”Giuliani-esque“ on Letterman, and a chorus of pundits sang hosannas over the terse eloquence of his speech to Congress (he didn’t write it, folks). Countless articles declared that Bush has found his ”mission“ and is growing into his job -- ”Mr. Bush‘s New Gravitas,“ droned the headline of a recent New York Times editorial -- and the consortium of newspapers held off on releasing the facts about their Florida recount, information that might suggest Bush ought to be a private citizen living in Texas right now.
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