THE END-OF-COMMUNISM references abounded last week when that massive statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. CNN.com called it " reminiscent of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. " The New York Times drew contrasts with " the anti-Communist revolutions of Eastern Europe ... in 1989. " Added the Washington Post: " On Wednesday, it was 1989 all over again, a statue coming down, a regime collapsing, wild celebration on the streets. "
The comparison was far from exact, as most media outlets were careful to note. After all, the statues of communist heroes were destroyed without the help of flag-bearing American soldiers. For the media, though, the 1989 reference may have been more about themselves, and their image of themselves, than it was about anything taking place on the streets of the Iraqi capital.
From the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the end of the Cold War in 1989, coverage of foreign affairs really mattered. Foreign correspondents and war reporters were among the most respected members of their craft, earning their reputations in such places as the halls of the Kremlin and the rice paddies of Vietnam, covering stories ranging from the Iranian hostage crisis to the US-Soviet proxy battles in Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
But in the 1990s, with the Cold War won, Americans turned inward. Television networks eliminated many of their international bureaus and newspapers shifted their priorities, reassigning space that had once been devoted to foreign news to such advertiser-friendly niches as health and technology. There were blips — the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 bombing of Kosovo — but once the fighting was over, the media quickly returned to business as usual.
A 1998 article in the American Journalism Review — written by, yes, that Peter Arnett — put it starkly: " International news coverage in most of America’s mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point. Today, a foreign story that doesn’t involve bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity has little chance of entering the American consciousness. "
Now that has changed. Far more than they did for the war in Afghanistan that followed September 11, the media have devoted massive resources to covering the war in Iraq. And the results have been mixed. Despite the extraordinary context and depth offered by national newspapers such as the Times and the Post (the best regional papers, such as the Boston Globe, also deserve kudos), modern warfare is, above all else, a television story.
Television, as we all know, requires a simple story line, and the war has certainly provided that: the good guys versus the bad guys, with embedded reporters riding on Army jeeps and retired generals pointing to maps and intoning gravely that we should win quickly, uh, no, we’re bogged down, and, whoops, yes, it looks like we’ll win quickly again. The civilian casualties, as well as the continued anger over the US-British invasion in the Arab world and in Europe, are given distinctly secondary treatment.
And for all the 24/7 coverage, especially on the cable news channels — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — much of the TV journalism has been surprisingly thin.
Boston University journalism professor Michael Berlin says that the Gulf War coverage in 1990 and ’91 was rounded out with contextual reporting on such subjects as history, Arab culture, and the like. After 9/11, he notes, television helped viewers learn about Islam. This time, Berlin has seen little of that.
" They kept repeating themselves. They were very simplistic, " says Berlin, who used to cover the United Nations for the Washington Post. " They were really short on context and a lot more repetitive — and a lot more focused on the intrinsic military details and military strategy. " He adds, " It was just embarrassing sometimes. Even the day that Baghdad fell, the footage was repeated. " His solution: " You have to read. You either have to read online or you have to read newspapers. They were a day behind everything, but you had to wait that extra day to find out what those crawl headlines were talking about. "
Nor is Berlin sanguine about what will happen to coverage now that the fighting is drawing to an end and the difficult work of rebuilding Iraq begins. " Afghanistan dropped from the face of the earth as far as television is concerned, " he says. " We have to look at what happened in Afghanistan to understand what happened or may happen in Iraq. And there’s nobody there to look. "
It’s an old story. The media assume that Americans don’t care about foreign news unless Americans are somehow directly involved. Danny Schechter, executive editor of the international media-watch Web site MediaChannel.org — which, despite financial troubles, is now posting new material again (see " Don't Quote Me, " News and Features, March 7) — recalls wanting to report on flooding in Mozambique some years ago, when he was with ABC’s 20/20.
" In order to do the story, we had to cast it. We had to find an American nurse, an angel of mercy, through whom the story could be told, " Schechter says. The moral of Schechter’s tale: " We don’t cover the world. We cover America in the world. "
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, New York magazine media columnist Michael Wolff dared to stand up at one of Central Command’s vacuous, news-free briefings in Qatar and publicly observe that the emperor was pretty much buck naked.
" I mean no disrespect ... but what is the value proposition? " asked Wolff. " Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million-dollar press center? "
Other reporters applauded, but that was about the only positive reception Wolff received. As he describes it in the current issue, Rush Limbaugh lambasted him on his radio show, leading his listeners to send some 3000 " hate e-mails. " And he says that a " thirtyish Republican operative " took him aside in Qatar in order to share such thoughts as " A lot of people don’t like you, " " Don’t fuck with things you don’t understand, " " This is fucking war, asshole, " and " No more questions for you. "
As Wolff’s experience illustrates, the media have been laboring under an additional burden in covering the war in Iraq: simply asking tough questions is seen in some quarters as a sign that one is somehow less than patriotic. Consider, for example, the hostility directed at CBS’s Dan Rather when he interviewed Saddam Hussein earlier this year.
Yes, Rather was more deferential than he might have been. Then again, he was interviewing a man who has been known to beat people to death on the spot when he gets pissed off, so it’s hard to be too judgmental. On balance, it was enlightening just to see the old tyrant and hear what he had to say. Yet Rather was blasted in some circles as unpatriotic, as though it were somehow un-American merely to give Saddam an opportunity to speak. Needless to say, television has featured few such deviations from the White House line since the bombs started falling on March 19.
Fox News, the ratings leader among the three cable channels, and MSNBC, desperately trying to pull itself out of last place, both slap logos on their screens proclaiming the US government’s preferred name for the war, " Operation Iraqi Freedom. " As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, observes, the two networks have adopted " the Pentagon’s propaganda slogan " as " their own branding. " He adds: " That’s pandering to the fact that the war is popular, and then appealing to that sentiment to win ratings. That is where you have crossed the line from journalism to commerce. " And Fox, in particular, has been so bombastically pro-war that you would think Ari Fleischer and Victoria Clarke have been directing the network’s coverage. Then again, with former Republican operative Roger Ailes running Fox, there’s hardly any need for that.
Unfortunately CNN, which has generally done a more sober job of covering the war, was dealt a blow to its credibility last Friday, when chief news executive Eason Jordan wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times revealing that he had covered up stories of horrific human-rights abuses — including torture of some Iraqis working for CNN — in order to protect some of his people from certain execution. Among other things, Jordan revealed that he had failed to share advance knowledge that Saddam’s sons-in-laws, who had defected to the West, might be executed if they returned to Iraq — as indeed they were — because to do so would have endangered the life of a CNN translator. In some circles, of course, that’s only going to make the braying, flag-waving patriotism of ratings leader Fox even more attractive.
Then there’s the matter of civilian casualties — covered in heartbreaking and nuanced detail by reporters such as the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid and the New York Times’ John Burns, as well as by National Public Radio, but only occasionally discussed and almost never seen on American television. A number of critics have noted that Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets have covered US-caused deaths and injuries to civilians in much more graphic detail than the American media. Rosenstiel says he does not draw any particular lesson from that because " American TV is more sanitized in general than some TV elsewhere in the world. Some of this is a matter of taste and culture. "
Still, he wonders whether it might not be a good idea to broadcast more-disturbing footage of the war during hours when children are unlikely to be watching. Otherwise, he says, it appears that " we depict war as something that doesn’t have dead bodies in it. "
Rosenstiel observes, too, that high levels of public support for the war and for George W. Bush can have a deleterious effect on coverage. " It’s harder to do your job well when the American public is heavily on one side of the issue, " Rosenstiel says. In contrast, he notes, the BBC has offered much more skeptical coverage of the war — in part because, with the weight of British public opinion against the war, its reporters " are free to cover how they see it. "
Not that the BBC is perfect, either. Mike Berlin, in a recent appearance on The David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ Radio (AM 1030), noted that he has heard the BBC use the loaded word " claimed " when attributing statements to American officials while reserving the more neutral " said " for Iraqi officials.