By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Dana Collins
From new transmitters come old stupidities.
On Saturday morning in L.A., just after nightfall in Baghdad, I clicked on the television, and seeing the already-familiar image of that city shrouded in darkness and silence, felt sure that it was about to be bombed. I waited. But a strange thing happened: nothing. No sirens, no antiaircraft fire, no buildings bursting into flames. After a few minutes, ABC anchor Charles Gibson ruefully said that they'd heard that something was about to happen in Baghdad (i.e., ka-boom!), but since it obviously wasn't, they were going back to regular programming. The war coverage, he added, would return the moment there was Breaking News — meaning, presumably, that day's fireworks.
While there was something breathtakingly bald about such opportunistic programming — don't worry, ladies and gents, you'll get to see the bombing live — it caught perfectly the voyeuristic spirit of the first digital war of the Entertainment Age. Along with millions of Americans, I spent the invasion's first few days glued to my set, as if having to catch a replay of an event would mean I'd somehow missed it — like being at Rite Aid when Robert Horry made his three-pointer against the Kings. Although staying on top of the news is our modern way of appeasing the gods — it offers the illusion of control over a potentially frightening reality — the rapt detachment of our viewing too often smacks of social superiority. As Susan Sontag angrily reminds us in her new book, Regarding the Pain of Others, only the educated elite in rich countries enjoy "the dubious privilege" of treating war, injustice and terror as a faraway spectacle; most of humanity knows these things firsthand and doesn't feel inured or immune to them.
Predictably, our TV networks didn't exactly exhaust themselves showing us these less-privileged people's view of the war. Although I did see an NBC segment named "World Reax" (which sounds like an allergy medicine), it was largely centered on Europe. In fact, despite continuous warnings that attacking Iraq might set off global jihad, or at least trouble on the fabled "Arab street," I switched channels for hours without ever finding a serious report on how people were reacting to the war in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or our staunch ally (nemesis?) Turkey. After months of pretending to care what the rest of the world thought — imagine, Mexico actually has an opinion! — we no longer had to pay any lip service.
In their disdain for the world's opinion, the networks seemed to have imbibed the spirit of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose recent press conferences have begun recapturing their post-9/11 glory — they resemble a brilliantly gaga piece of performance art. Rummy is no dummy, and even as he boasted about giving reporters unprecedented access (co-opting the media in the process), he described the limitations of the coverage with his usual trenchant vividness. "What we're seeing is not the war in Iraq," Rumsfeld told reporters, "but slices of the war in Iraq."
Hearing these words, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's old quip that he didn't make slices of life but slices of cake. As it turns out, Hitch could almost have been referring to the gung-ho TV coverage, whose opening days kept frosting the war with glamour, from incessantly replaying the hypnotic son-et-lumièreof bombs hitting Baghdad (shades of the napalmed palm trees in Apocalypse Now) to promoting the geek-boy exuberance of reporters like CNN's Walter Rodgers, who gushed about the "steel wave" roaring across the desert toward Baghdad. If Rodgers were any more deeply embedded within the U.S. military, you'd have to pry him from the mattress with a crowbar.
The delusional quality of the TV reports (and Bush administration predictions) became apparent during the fighting in Nasiriyah, when what at first looked like a PlayStation war game suddenly turned into, well, war. Naturally, this didn't lead the networks to deepen reporting or expand sociopolitical analysis; instead, they just went crazy in another, darker direction. Suddenly, you were again hearing the word quagmire— on the fifth day of a war! — and a handful of American deaths was belabored as if it were a disaster on the scale of Dien Bien Phu. By Tuesday morning, Diane Sawyer was asking why the Iraqis weren't dancing in the streets. Maybe because so many of them still remember how Bush's father sold out their uprising the last time.
And like last time, what we've seen so far has been sanitized for our viewing pleasure. The most disturbing footage has come from Al-Jazeera, which, unlike American networks, showed dead Iraqi civilians and dead U.S. soldiers who appeared to have been deliberately shot in the head. I hate looking at such grisly pictures, but I feel obliged to do some of it — nasty death is the bottom-line reality of any war. The glory stuff is pure mythology, and if you're going to cover Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially 24 hours a day, then cover it without blinking, dammit. Otherwise, you're just prettifying the war in order to comfort your audience. I don't want to be "protected" from the reality of POW photos or dead bodies, especially not by the execs who claim to do the protecting — you know, the guys who shoehorn war coverage into the Oscar telecast or timeouts at the NCAA tournament.