Schlock and Awe

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

Crawl Boy, does it ever. The ticker at the bottom of the screen changes about as often as the coffee creamer at Perkins. One can wake up in the morning to read a battle statistic from An Nasiriyah, see it again when one comes home from work, encounter the identical bulletin upon shuffling off to bed, and discover the same tag scrolling along the screen the next morning. For three days straight, the Fox News crawl reports that New York City is spending $900K a day on police expenses to deal with protestors. War is free; it's the peaceniks that are expensive.

Creative Visualization For the first 72 hours of the war, the news out of the Pentagon is that Saddam might be dead, Iraqis are surrendering faster than they can drop cammo trou, and the collapse of the regime might have happened sometime back in the Ottoman days. The American media faithfully internalize this information for the viewers at home--and, of course, for the CNN fanatics in the bunkers beneath Baghdad. The amazing logic is that by saying that Saddam has fallen, the fickle friends around him may very well see to it that Saddam falls. And for anyone who's taken pleasure from a John le Carré novel--or an Orwell jeremiad--the genius of this "information operation" has a sly appeal. But just as visualizing world peace hasn't achieved much more than rusting out a lot of Volvo bumpers, fantasizing about a bloodless war proves no guarantee of the real thing. Still, it must be said that for all but the most diseased nihilists on the country's couches, the alternative scenario proves a lot less fun to imagine in the days that follow. Who wants to visualize Baghdad and Basra getting a Grozny-style architectural makeover while hundreds of thousand of civilians die and American troops stack up in Arlington?

C-Span For all the yellow journalism dressed up in the red, white, and blue, C-Span proves the point that there has never in American history been so much good information so readily available to so many people. Late at night on Day 4 of the conflict, C-Span airs long interviews with POWs from Gulf War Junior, collected in 1996 by a POW museum in Andersonville, Georgia. These are harrowing stories delivered soberly and almost without editing in front of a black backdrop. Sgt. Daniel Stamaris, who was shot down in a Black Hawk in the waning days of the war, talks about being left to die by Iraqis in the 40-degree chill of night, stripped of his gear, his pelvis shattered, wild dogs circling in the distance. He goes on to recall being fed a tomato by an Iraqi doctor--which he devoured--and how he eats tomatoes to this day, despite disliking their taste. Later, he speaks about his relief at being able to piss into a bottle on the back of a pick-up truck after his system had been in shock for 48 hours. He is without animus toward his captors, radiant with the belief that God had a plan for him that didn't involve his dying. It's the most involving human story in a week of war coverage. Two days later, another of C-Span's Andersonville interviewees appears on Fox News, spewing platitudes and staying on message about winning the war quickly, getting the boys home. Commercial television has an unfailing ability to leach the soul out of everything it touches.

Dolphins When the time comes to navigate the mined harbor of Umm Qasr, we learn that our humanitarian strategy will fly or founder on the backs of creatures that can't find their way out of a tuna net.

 

Drums The rat-a-tat-tat martial music that roars behind Fox's logo sequences evokes images of a little drummer boy who has been gobbling steroids. And yet for all its bombast, the effect is ultimately kind of silly--the equivalent of the bouncing Balkan nationalist songs that some call "turbo-Serb."

Embeds One Fayetteville Observer reporter takes the word a little too literally, becoming engaged to a major in the unit she'd been assigned to cover. After a week of leaving her in bed--or rather, in the field--Observer editors finally relieve her of duty. In a somewhat similar spirit, media critics like to say the 600-odd reporters traveling with coalition troops are embedded up the Pentagon's ass. True, TV's embeds--CNN's Jason Bellini, NBC's David Bloom and Kerry Sanders--do get caught up in the postcard gee-whizness of the war's first hours. But by Day 4 and 5 many embeds are reporting on fearsome supply runs that feel like turkey shoots and frontline alarm and confusion. The most radical and estimable part of embedding is the notion that America's volunteer army will act less like Hondo and more like Shane under the ugly circumstances that inevitably arise in combat. The only thing surer than the media's ideological passivity is the ubiquity of career opportunism. Even the embedded Geraldo--whose tight T-shirt, cammos, and desert bandana suggest his real allegiance may be to the Village People--is going to fancy himself Seymour Hersh when presented with scores of civilian dead. And if the troops start to feel ill-equipped and marooned (on Day 10, we're hearing that some soldiers are down to one MRE a day), it's unlikely that the hungry reporters in the tent next door will kowtow to generals spinning the story from the CENTCOM Dream Factory. Embedding is a radical experiment for the democratic press and a daring statement of trust in the men and women at the bottom of the military ranks. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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