The Greatest Show on Earth

Doug Ewald

It was appropriate that Channel 5's entertainment reporter, Rusty Gatenby, and talking head Harris Faulkner played masters of ceremony at Sunday night's Academy Awards party at Minneapolis's State Theatre. The formal affair, which benefits the Minnesota AIDS Project, is both a celebration and sendup of cinematic excess, after all; and I can think of no better local duo to help manufacture a little hype. Gatenby, in the tradition of Hollywood's most heralded "reporters," has so eagerly embraced his role as sycophantic rube that he makes Channel 4's Bill Carlson look like a muckraker. Faulkner, an impetuous diva who would look right at home on the red carpet herself, reportedly warned event organizers that she might have to ditch the party early and get back to anchoring Channel 5's war coverage.

Fortunately, both emcees were able to stay for the duration of the party. Before the festivities ended, though, I was back in my basement, snuggled in for another episode of Operation Iraqi Freedom, starring those intrepid journalists who have tagged along with US troops in the field.

I couldn't help it. The Pentagon-approved coverage is just simply riveting; like watching Fear Factor without a safety net. I mean, be honest, where else can you watch your favorite media personalities put on their chemical suits, adjust their gas masks, even run for cover? Sure, the whole arrangement can't help but result in an even more incestuous relationship between reporters and the sources who are literally keeping them alive. And yes, there's something strangely bloodless about channel surfing for a surgical attack. But, hey, that's entertainment.

So, in the spirit of Oscar himself--and in deference to hard-working Minnesota journalists like Rusty and Harris--we have decided to give out the following awards for the best moments in local war coverage during week one.


Best Ad Campaign: All four network affiliates took a hard run at this category, pumping up promo spots with patriotic symbolism, vague threats of domestic terror, and undulating music to match (the great-grandson of whoever invented the Casio keyboard should have one helluva royalty check coming his way once there's a regime change). KARE-11's teaser on Tuesday, featuring a field commander telling his restless troops it was "hammer time," was especially stirring. Still, only Faulkner's cohorts at Channel 5 seem to have an understanding of its target demo. They have packaged armed combat like a professional wrestling match, in which Saddam Hussein plays the heel 18-to-34-year-old men can love to loathe. While viewers are treated to a series of quick cuts between pumped-up troops and blazing oil wells, the narrator--who sounds a lot like that guy who used to do the monster truck show ads on KQRS--tells us the only place we can hope to see "live, exclusive action" is on Channel 5. "Don't miss the dramatic coverage of America's war with Iraq," he quakes as a missile screams over the horizon. Irresistible.


Best Set Design: It seems like just yesterday that all a news team needed to compete was a catchy 3-D logo and a coordinated color scheme. The folks at our local FOX affiliate have forever raised the bar, however. Taking a cue from the Pentagon, who hired a Hollywood producer to design their briefing room, the folks at Channel 9 turned their studio floor into a map of the Middle East. Then they rigged an overhead camera so that anchor Jeff Passolt, doing his best imitation of aging football analyst Terry Bradshaw, can simulate the plays US commanders are executing on the battlefield. Detailed model airplanes, cute miniature tanks, and colored cones (which I'm pretty sure represent the "allied" troops) serve to illustrate the master plan. When there is time, retired military personnel show up on the gridiron to provide color commentary. "Now that looks like something out of a Batman movie," Passolt exclaimed as one guest held up a miniature stealth bomber. These planes cost over $100 million, the guest observed. "Hey, if it does the job, it's worth it," the anchor gushed.


Best Performance as an Embedded War Correspondent: If anyone had time to read the newspaper, the Star Tribune's Sharon Schmickle, who is embedded with the Marine's Combat Service Support Battalion 18, would be a shoo-in for some sort of journalistic commendation. Her clear, exhaustively reported stories give readers a sense of what US soldiers face on the front lines (roving bloodhound Paul McEnroe has also filed a number of enterprising pieces from Northern Iraq, which have helped put the conflict in perspective). The key to winning this category, though, is crowd-pleasing theatrics; and in that department, you have to give it up to Channel 5's Dean Staley, who, along with photographer Joe Caffrey, is traveling with the 101st Airborne. Just like the network stars, these guys have a real knack for making the obvious seem revelatory. On the eve of attack, for instance, the mood in camp is marked by "nervousness and anxiety." When missiles are launched the next day, Staley brings it all back home by vividly re-creating the sound effects: "Boom, boom, boom." Back in the studio, Faulkner makes sure to emphasize that members of this crack crew are risking their lives "to bring us a complete perspective." All of which reminds me: Just as I support the troops and not the war, I pray Staley and Caffrey live to see the bosses who signed off on this scheme serve out an eternity in hell.


Best Field Reporting: Wine and roses. WCCO anchor Don Shelby took a trip to a nearly empty Café Un Deux Trois restaurant last week to help us understand the depth of anti-French sentiment in the Twin Cities. The only thing missing was a Rather-esque flack jacket. Don't all CBS affiliates receive them?


Best Headline: Before giving out this award, it seems worth noting that size really does matter. The headlines in both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press on the morning after the war began ("War's First Strike" and the understated but powerful "War") were both markedly larger than those that were published at the beginning of the Gulf War in 1991. And, seven days into the conflict, they remain as bold as the prose itself (the PiPress's "Bush Locks Sights on Saddam" was especially poetic). Our pick was posted online Monday night, March 17: "Bush Gives Saddam 48 Hours to Run." Sadly, some namby-pamby at the copy desk got in the way of greatness, and when the print edition came out the next morning the word "Run" had been changed to "Leave."


Best Performance by an Opportunistic Politician or Corporate Weasel: Tough call: Do you reward achievement or is it the effort that counts? Gov. Tim Pawlenty's press conference at the state's "Emergency Operation Center" the morning after the first bombs fell was worthy of a beltway spinmeister. After graciously allowing that Minnesotans have a right to their opinions about the war, he sternly reminded would-be malcontents that "every ounce of resources used to keep protests peaceful and lawful takes away from protecting folks" from terrorism. That night, channels 4, 5, 9, and 11 all ran these comments in conjunction with stories about local protest movements, where police are dispatched as a matter of course. Not to be outdone, House Speaker Steve Sviggum held a press conference the next day to tout his two-year effort to turn driver's licenses into green cards for temporary citizens (read: Somalis, Iraqis, and anyone who worships in a mosque). On cue, channels 5 and 11 lumped his comments into their top of the hour "war coverage."

So, yes, both Pawlenty and Sviggum deserve a round of applause. But I'm giving this gold statue to the brain trust at Northwest Airlines, who attempted to use war as an excuse to lay off thousands of union employees. Sure, their desperation shot bounced high off the rim, proving that you can't fool all of the reporters all of the time. But the recklessness of the move, the sheer audacity--well, it was downright presidential.

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