Schlock and Awe

The media march off to war with Iraq: A TV glossary

Before our nation finishes operating on Iraq's freedom, it's likely that the American media will be blamed for having provoked the war, lied about the war, prolonged the war, and--if we're all really unlucky--lost the war, too. These days, it's hard to imagine the public jeering at returning war veterans. But it's no stretch to picture someone hawking a loogie at Aaron Brown--and he'd best be on the lookout from both his left and right. Cynics may say that our nation's war coverage has never been so grotesque: so facile, so biased, so manipulative. But then cynicism here is just another form of idealism--the notion that things are getting worse presupposes that they were once better.

Not convinced that yesterday was every bit as wretched as today? Check out this passage from near the end of Michael Herr's Vietnam masterpiece Dispatches about the bloody art of media euphemism:

 

It was characteristic of a lot of Americans in Vietnam to have no idea of when they were being obscene, and some correspondents fell into that, writing their stories from the daily releases and battlegrams, tracking them through with the cheer-crazed language of the macv [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] Information Office, things like "discreet burst" (one of those tore an old grandfather and two children to bits as they ran along a paddy wall one day, at least according to the report made later by the gunship pilot), "friendly casualties" (not warm, not fun), "meeting engagement" (ambush), concluding usually with 17 or 117 or 317 enemy dead and American losses "described as light."

 

On Day 10 of George Bush's Iraqi Death Trip, American losses are still being described as light. And, hell, maybe they are. But for all our nation's splendid technological advances on the battlefield and in the skies, the language of warfare hasn't come so far.

The "Shlock and Awe" tv glossary below aspires to cut through what nearly every news anchor has ponderously been calling "the fog of war"--as if they were quoting an obscure passage from Thucydides--and replace it with the fog of punditry. On the subject of obscure passages from Thucydides, how about this adage from The History of the Peloponnesian War: "Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking." (Recall what Donald Rumsfeld declared last week, We're still, needless to say, much closer to the beginning than the end.) Less than two weeks into the campaign, our zeal for war seems to have dissipated--and no one is looking forward to the undertaking.

24-Hour News CycleIn fact, there is only one hour of news a day. TV just makes it feel like 24 hours. While CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News wage a battle of attrition with our attention span, the major national dailies--the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, USA Today--hit the stand each morning with all the TV news and then some. Merely supplying babble and B-roll for the broadcasts consumes the massive resources of TV news. And so one begins to notice that for breaking stories, the networks constantly cite wire reports, print journalists, and Arab news teams. CNN has a debriefing arrangement with the reporters of the New York Times. MSNBC joins forces with the Washington Post. True, the pixilated videophone images of the "steel wave" rolling across the desert create a more beautiful digital dreamscape than anything out of Hollywood. Yet to convey real poignancy and emotion, the TV broadcasts flip through slide shows of still photographs before each commercial break. It's not an exaggeration to say that 10 minutes spent on a newspaper's web site is the equivalent of six hours at the TV screen.

Abu Dhabi TV First Al Jazeera, and now we've got to keep a cage open in Guantanamo for these anti-American jokers, too. In one CNN reporting package, an Arab media commentator notes that during the last Persian party, viewers across the Middle East tuned in to CNN. The proliferation of homegrown satellite networks has utterly changed this dynamic, in the process helping to create what CNN's Wesley Clark accurately calls "pan-Arab consciousness."

Baghdad The TV networks know as much about wartime life in the Iraqi capital as they do about the nightly routine in Dick Cheney's bedchamber--and have even less interest in uncovering the details. Why are veteran journalists the only people asked to comment on the experience of a Baghdad bombing season? Apparently, there's not a single Iraqi exile in the United States with a firsthand perspective.

Brown, AaronseeKudos, Slant, andSmiling Disease

Carpet Bombing Even during an epic sandstorm that many Iraqis credit as Allah's divine retribution against the invading infidels, Ted Koppel's hair remains beyond comprehension.

Casualties Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke doesn't release these figures for days at a time while the proper "processes" are being followed. By contrast, late on Day 9, Pentagon pep-squad leader Bill O'Reilly reveals that inside intelligence sources have told him reliably that 25,000 to 35,000 Iraqi soldiers have been killed. So it is that the War on Terror progresses from Ground Zero to adding zeros.

Center of Gravity What military planners call the "center of gravity"--Baghdad--proves to be a vaporous specter for the people in the anchor chairs and the retired warriors who command the cameras. In the early days of the campaign, three or four anchors muster the gumption to ask aloud what the armed forces plan to do when they get to the edges of the city. We're told repeatedly that the military intends to avoid "street-by-street" fighting. But no colonel or general presents the plausible alternative: that in the effort to preserve American lives, we'll reduce the sprawling concrete metropolis to something you can sift through a tea strainer. On Day 9, CNN's resident general speaks encouragingly of America's urban combat experience in places like Hue, Vietnam; Beirut, Lebanon; and Mogadishu, Somalia. Apparently, no one has told the play-by-play man that America's record on that road trip was 0-3.

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