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Slices of a digital war

Thursday, Mar 27 2003
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Illustration by Dana Collins

From new transmitters come old stupidities.

—Bertolt Brecht

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-lumière of 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.

Against the odds, a few reporters have managed to let their humanity shine through. ABC's Richard Engel was on the roof of Baghdad's Palestine Hotel when the bombs started to hit last Friday, and his panting, gasping, terrified words let you feel the force of "shock and awe" (a term that most anchors repeated almost gleefully). Later, CNN freelancer May Ying Welsh talked to an Iraqi family who emerged from a bomb shelter — "They had their dog with them," she noted, in a humanizing touch — and she had to persuade them to go back in because they preferred going home where they had food and water. Still, despite such immediate moments, TV offered no reporting to match Jon Lee Anderson's New Yorker dispatch from Baghdad or the L.A. Times' superb articles about the village of Safwan, whose citizens began by cheering U.S. Marines, soon moved on to looting, and eventually wound up angry that they'd suffered too many casualties and received not enough aid.

Such real journalism had little place in the 24-hour stridency of jingoistic Fox News or shameless CNN, whose eager-beaver anchors seem giddy about all the new toys on display in their telecasts. In the great marketplace of images, TV is now in a position to have its own Cops-style version of Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. We are being offered the experience of war as it's really fought. Except, of course, for the commercials and crawls, the missing corpses and censored language, the chattering anchors and edited footage (to eliminate the dull parts) — not to mention our total freedom from personal danger.

The newsman's thrill at these technical possibilities erupted during the battle of Umm Qasr, when CNN's obviously exhausted Aaron Brown stopped talking about what was happening with the soldiers and declared the battle a great moment in journalistic history:

"This is literally the kind of thing that we, in this business, have talked about for 20 years, 30 years probably, that some day we would have the ability, the technical capacity, to cover war live. And on this day, at 2:35 in the morning Eastern Time on a Sunday, that which we used to talk about . . . has come to be." Amen. Allah Akbar.

While this was surely a memorable moment for Brown, one suspects it was unforgettable for the actual combatants, the rifle-aiming Marines lying in the sand tensely just outside Umm Qasr and the overmatched Iraqi soldiers who were holed up in a dismal concrete building, unaware that "coalition forces," as the Bush administration desperately terms them, had called in a British air strike against their position. They were even more doomed than they knew.

Brown didn't stick around to see the actual fighting slowly play out with the logic of a high-tech snuff film. He was replaced by Carol Costello and Anderson Cooper, who asked retired General Wesley Clark dumb questions and twittered away about the impending air attack as if it were the next float up in the Rose Parade. At one point, Costello commented, "I really wish we could drop the banner [with the network logo and commentary] for a few seconds so we could see the Marines."

Sorry, babe. CNN was too busy branding the war to actually show us the soldiers whose lives we were supposed to care about. As for the men whose lives we weren't supposed to care about — those poor Iraqi bastards inexorably met their fate in the wee hours of the L.A. morning. Network executives were no doubt heartbroken that this newfangled reality show couldn't have been on in prime time.

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