Wicked Games

Like many of our reporters, he‘s from the region and has a strong accent. So you may want to listen a bit harder.

--Judy Woodruff, CNN

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.

This inflation reached a peculiar pinnacle of insolence in the October 20 New York Times, which devoted an entire news article to suggesting that even Al Gore’s biggest supporters are now glad that Bush was elected. To support this point, reporter Richard Berke quotes various unnamed Gore backers who suggest that the ex-veep ”may know too much“ about foreign policy to manage a war properly, and that his foreign-policy team might have been less experienced than Bush‘s (greener than Condoleezza Rice?). At moments, Berke’s prose achieves levels of shiftiness worthy of Jon Lovitz: ”Sounding relieved that Mr. Gore is not president, Representative James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat, said: ‘I feel comfortable with President Bush. I never thought I would utter those words.’“ Read that again: Does Moran really sound relieved that Gore lost?

Although no fan of Gore, whose principles fall away as easily as a stripper‘s costume, I find it bizarre to suggest that he’d obviously handle things less well than Bush -- especially on the grounds that he knows too much about foreign affairs. When poor Al saw this in the pages of the Times, the shock must‘ve splintered him into 10,000 toothpicks.

While the liberal media are filled with wobblies (alas, not Wobblies), the right makes no pretense to tolerance, fair play or bipartisanship. I enjoy reading The Wall Street Journal, not only because it’s briskly written and unsentimentally reported, but because it so gleefully promotes the interests of the capitalist elite. What other paper would charge Democrats with employing a ”class-war riff“ in opposing corporate tax breaks?

Its editorial pages became famous under Robert L. Bartley, whose treatment of Bill Clinton reached a level of viciousness that a hyena could only aspire to. Under the new leadership of Paul Gigot, so deceptively genial when sparring with Mark Shields on PBS‘s NewsHour, the paper’s ideological fervor hasn‘t wavered. In the world of the Journal, Paul Johnson urges the West to re-colonize the Middle East; the media’s favorite Arab, Fouad Ajami, insists that ”Arabs Have Nobody To Blame but Themselves“; and a celebration of V.S. Naipaul‘s Nobel Prize begins with the claim that he’s eons better than Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer (who, not coincidentally, are all on the left). Its editorial about profiteering doesn‘t mention airlines, insurance companies or Bayer AG, which would keep generic Cipro off the market to protect its profits. No, the villains of the piece turn out to be the trial lawyers (of course) whose perfidy was to decide that they weren’t going to exploit the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Especially during wartime, the Journal offers a bracing reminder that, while America may be united in some ways, the rich are always looking out for themselves. I find it oddly comforting in these confusing times to know that, no matter what terrible thing may happen, these guys will always keep pursuing the same old agenda. Had Bartley and Gigot washed up on that island with Tom Hanks in Cast Away, they‘d have doubtless insisted on privatizing Wilson.

If you’re addicted to Nightline or CNN‘s World Business Today with Richard Quest (who sucks air through his teeth so loudly that his guests recoil), you’ve seen the ad that years from now will surely fill viewers with a perverse nostalgia. The ”Wicked Game“ commercial for Jaguar is a glossy-chic spot set in a depopulated world in which a gorgeous young couple cavort and kiss and nearly run each other over while Chris Isaak croons, ”No, I-I-I-I don‘t want to fall in love.“ Not so long ago, such designer decadence would have felt platitudinous, but in our glum advertising climate, this 30-second spot erupts between the news items like a vesuvian id. It seems to have come from another planet, or maybe from a time capsule dated September 10, 2001.

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