Embed or in Bed?

In a standard supplement to their regular war package, mainstream media now occasionally feature -- what else? -- mainstream media criticism. This time around, the two prime subjects were (1) embedded reporters and (2) bombastic cable networks. Easier targets have never presented themselves. The cheerleaders of FOX News are surefire objects of scorn for networks and newspapers aiming to occupy the center. No complaint here: FOX's high-volume bluster and low-doubt punditry deserve all the criticism they get. FOX and MSNBC marinated their reportage in bathetic music and drum tattoos, binding their audience to the war effort and stifling thought.

As for the embeds, what a setup for easy cohabitation gags. Reporters in bed with the people they cover surely couldn't be intrepid independents. Who wouldn't favor the people who carry you around in their tanks? Who wouldn't hesitate to offend them? But in truth, many of these accusations were misplaced. Embedded reporters did reasonably well under what were surely confining circumstances. If most of the reporting was travelogue -- desert expanses, puffs of smoke and occasional bang-bang, culminating in moments of toppled Saddam Hussein statuary -- this was no fault of the embeds. They saw what they saw and couldn't see what they couldn't see. Nor was this the first time American reporters were life-and-death dependent on their subjects: In Vietnam it was customary for reporters to hitch rides in military helicopters; they knew who was watching their backs.

The prime deficiencies in the immense war reportage lay elsewhere, deep in the network headquarters where imagination was paralyzed, Washington deference was normal, and war coverage was (to paraphrase the title of Chris Hedges' recent book) a force that kept us mesmerized. Toward that end, the logoed, soundtracked war was sanitized. No doubt some viewers wanted it just that way. They wanted to "ooh" and "ah" at the glory of "shock and awe." The dirty little secret of much war "news" is that much of the audience wants to entrance itself into emotional surrender, and news officials want to elicit precisely that surrender. The spectacle is what both parties bargain for -- an interest they share with the White House. Not surprisingly, the networks took to boasting of their technology, as when Charles Gibson, raving about ABC's "Saving Private Jessica" footage on Good Morning America, "ooh'd" and "ah'd" about "that nightscope video that is of course so captivating to watch." Note: He didn't tout the video because it was so informative or so significant but because it was so captivating. The secret was no secret. The point of the coverage was to win our attention, to hook us, to keep us connected to the war's emotional séance.

As many observers have noted (though not so many on American TV), corpses and human calamities were conspicuous by their absence -- unless you were watching al-Jazeera, which much of the world was doing. In Europe, 10 days into the war, I saw in a single segment of Sky News more grotesque imagery -- a wounded Iraqi child had lost his legs in a not-so-smart bomb blast -- than in weeks of coverage by American networks. The networks surely had trouble counting casualties, but this should not have prevented them from saying and showing what they knew and explaining why they didn't know more. Much of the public is grown up and can handle the revelation that the networks are limited.

High among television's defaults was the endless recycling of euphemism. The small screen is over-renowned for indelible pictures -- forgettable "wallpaper" takes up far more time -- but at least as important is the way all media bend language. Even in the age of satellite telephones and uplinks, words come first. The power of the media is, crucially, the power to name. Was the civil-rights movement the "freedom struggle" or the product of "outside agitators"? A name pulls a train of implications. A euphemism emits a haze of obfuscation.

Consider the terminology with which the Iraq War's heroes were designated (in print as well as electronically): "the coalition." The term radiated a certain grandeur. Trimmed back from its predecessor, the "Coalition of the Willing," it emitted a thumping sound: "the coalition," as if there could only be one. Surely "the coalition" sounded more prepossessing than "the United States, the United Kingdom, 2,000 Australians and various eastern European handfuls." Incessant use of the term "coalition," with "coalition forces" commanding "coalition-controlled territory," solidified and magnified the sense that the United States and its (few) allies were a multinational force of sweeping proportions. The term itself seemed instantly to refute the oft-heard charge that George W. Bush took the United States to war almost alone.

Refutation by vocabulary likely fooled no one outside the United States of America. But it did make the war a warmer, fuzzier affair for us, obscuring as it did the sorry history that left the United States, United Kingdom and a few friends defying the broad coalition of the unwilling. To say "the coalition" was to erase the diplomatic debacle wherein the Bush and Tony Blair governments abjectly failed to recruit support for a war that most members of the United Nations Security Council, and most people in almost all countries, thought premature, unnecessary, misguided and/or downright wrong. So each repetition of "the coalition" amounted to an act of enlistment. Journalists who relayed the term in effect embraced the White House definition not only of the present war but its history. George Orwell, thou shouldst be living in this hour!

Reality, anyone? We heard so much about "the coalition" for two reasons. First, the U.S. government used the term routinely and incessantly -- its idea of staying "on message" is to jump up and down in the same place until reporters weary. But second, the news anchors, correspondents and commentators echoed the euphemism. It was understandable that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would not be totting up the population of the countries that opposed the war. But during their scads of on-air hours to fill, media commentators did not comment. They might have but didn't -- out of fear, trembling or plain inertia. Indeed, when war burst forth on screen, the political and historical commentators, rare in the first place, were sent home. Thus it was in the Gulf War, thus it was again.

All the lavish sets, all the phalanxes of military commentators pointing their pointers and strolling over their floor maps were of no avail in reporting the war's political meanings (which will be, in the end, decisive to the nation's security). Just what was going on in Turkish politics? What did it signify that the largest demonstrations in Europe took place in countries that supported the war (Spain, Italy, Britain)? How was the war playing in Iran, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, China? How was it affecting the fight against terrorism? What were foreign police agencies up to? American TV displayed little interest in such reverberations. Foreign bureaus were emptied of correspondents, who were, of course, thin on the ground in the first place.

Also obscured was much of the war's domestic fallout. While embedded reporters paid tribute to American soldiers, House Republicans were voting to trim veterans' benefits, including free medical treatment and rehabilitation. Hell-bent on tax cuts, disproportionately for the rich, they would spend not a new nickel to secure U.S. ports against terrorist attacks. The networks did not illuminate such shocking and awesome developments. Occasional items of this sort popped up in staccato anchorman form and crawled across the screen beneath swatches of travelogue. That was that. Been near there, sort of done that and now for some guesswork about whether Saddam Hussein is alive.

Nor, in the course of hundreds of television hours from Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, was much time spared to reexamine the case for the war. Been around there, kind of done that. So the question of weapons of mass destruction vanished as if in a sandstorm. Once Iraqi freedom was slipped back to the top of Bush's agenda, it might have looked unseemly to revisit the case the president had made for war, which, of course, rested on factual claims about the inadequacy of UN inspections. Perhaps the most shocking and awesome revelation during the war was the report that Bush had rested part of his case on a transparent fraud. In his State of the Union address, Bush, citing British intelligence, had claimed that Saddam Hussein "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Interestingly, by the time Secretary of State Powell delivered his much-touted case to the UN Security Council, the African uranium claim had vanished. It didn't return -- and the media didn't notice. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that the documents the United States and United Kingdom had brandished to make Bush's case were forgeries full of transparent errors. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh wrote that these fraudulent documents passed through CIA hands on their way to the IAEA.

Forgery. Intelligence agencies. Vanishing uranium deals. All this might have made for excellent television -- but television largely absented itself. Don't blame the reporters. Don't even blame Ari Fleischer. The news organizations know how to tell such stories when they are of a mind to do so. Can't you just see the full-screen memos, the highlighted lines, the evidence of fakery? Can't you just hear the "aha"? Intelligence failures, disinformation, whatever this story turns out to be -- the whole sordid thing would electrify. But the networks have decided that this sort of investigation is not their business. The sound emanating from network headquarters is the sound of suits walking on eggshells.

Thus does television's super equipment spew the pepper spray of war. History is toast.

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