Rationing The War Coverage

Apr 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Notes from the home front; or, They Also Surf:
* One of the more memorable exchanges from the early days of the war was a journalism debate between ABC’s Ted Koppel and Charlie Gibson. Charlie declared it would be unconscionable to show the bodies of any American casualties, ever, on screen, and Koppel responded that not to show casualties would give viewers a lopsided and homogenized view of this war and warfare in general.
Unfortunate upshot: Gibson’s view appears to have prevailed at ABC and the other networks too. Viewers are spared sights that might upset them, as if war isn’t generically upsetting (and also suggests we “can’t handle the truth,” in Jack Nicholson’s immortal phrase). But then, this is the first war with commercials embedded in it; the networks may be more worried about sponsor upset than viewer alarm.
* TV Guide’s J. Max Robins, who writes one of the two really good columns in the magazine (the other is Phil Mushnick on sports), was a victim of deadline tyranny a couple weeks ago; he was hailing Peter Arnett’s “comeback” as a war correspondent even as Arnett was being sacked for having gone on Iraqi TV and bad-mouthed the United States.
Nevertheless, in the next week’s issue (April 12), TV Guide’s moronic Cheers & Jeers column includes a cheer for, guess who, Peter Arnett. He gets a hip-hip-hooray for his “fine journalism on (or near) the front lines.” It’s TV Guide that merits jeering, especially considering what comes next. …
Extremely unfortunate upshot: Phil Mushnick has been canned by some editor at TV Guide. I found this out five minutes after writing what a great column he writes (he still does write great columns for the New York Post) and noticing it was absent from the current issue. “I’m hurt,” Phil told me. “I never lost a gig in my life. It’s very upsetting.” Here is a man of integrity and experience who wrote a first-class column with a gutsy point of view. TV Guide apparently wants to be even more chicken-livered and innocuous than the medium it covers.
The magazine is, incidentally, adding insult to insult by telling angry readers who call about Mushnick’s absence that he is “on hiatus.” That, says Mushnick, “is a [bleeped] lie. I’m out.” He was notified, he says, via a two-line e-mail message. How’s that for class?
* Lens of the beholder: In fairly tight shots, it looked like a huge crowd waiting for the final topplement, with U.S. help, of the Saddam Hussein statue that fell on live TV on Wednesday. But infrequently, on at least a couple of the networks, you’d see a much wider shot of the Baghdad town square in which the statue stood. Now the crowd looked fairly small and the disapproval of Saddam a tad less unanimous.
I don’t remember hearing anybody give a crowd-count or even a rough estimate on the air, but I can’t watch all the channels all the time, thank God.
* Scenes of the crowd jumping on the statue, ripping off its head, dragging the head down the street, smacking the head with sticks and shoes, kicking it and spitting on it were gratifying. To a degree. But then you may have reminded yourself that what you were watching was a frenzied mob, and frenzied mobs are always scary, no matter how contemptible the object of their scorn. The frenzied mob looked less sympathetic as it turned into a looting frenzied mob.
* Creep-out: Eerie enough that nightscope photography being used to cover the war turns people, objects and landscapes green. A kind of vivid, livid green. But often, when it’s just a correspondent speaking into the camera, there’s an additional side effect-the correspondent’s eyes appearing to emit a bright white light. At times it looks like Martians have taken over the airwaves. In this lousy century, maybe even that would not shock us any more.
* Fox Schlock: Not only has the Fox News Channel remained absolutely, resolutely and unquestioningly upbeat about the war, it orchestrates listings of headlines with a loud bang noise-a bit like cannon fire. One day, though, the sound-effect computer goofed and what was supposed to be a bang came out like a dyspeptic bass burp, or the noise the frumpy frog makes in the cartoon classic One Froggy Evening.
Always looking on the bright side, Fox’s early reports of a friendly fire tragedy-carried on the network’s little ticker tape at the bottom of the screen-referred to it as a “supposed incident.” Eventually Fox relented and had to admit it was an actual incident.
* Comic relief has been provided not only by Iraq’s hilarious minister of information, a textbook case of denial if there ever was one, but also by Fox’s resurrection in a single prime-time hour of both Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy, an apparent attempt to rescue both from the genus Crackpottus Americanus. North was even said to be “reporting” from Iraq and apparently has press credentials. Why don’t we call him “Fox’s Minister of Information,” or is that Geraldo’s title?
* Last week’s edition of this column enumerated a series of charges against ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, among them that he was missing in action on the night the war broke out and that, much later, he was partly to blame for the screw-up that saw an ABC News special ending prematurely, leaving some affiliates with a gaping hole of dead air.
A source close to Jennings-oh hell, why play games, it was Jennings himself-says these two allegations are simply false. Jennings also said we printed them knowing they were false, but that’s false too.
* Some people will probably miss the 24/7 war coverage once it finally ends. For those battle junkies, there is an obvious remedy: The History Channel changes its name to the War Channel and includes Gulf War II among the wars it is constantly refighting. War is still hell, even the sanitized network version, but when you put commercials in it, war can also be ratings in the bank.