Get a grip!

woodruff (14K)

TV coverage of the Iraq war deteriorates

Following the impressive — awesome, even — start to coverage by the major networks of the war between "coalition forces" and Iraq, old habits have taken hold and coverage has deteriorated to being irritating and stupid, albeit occasionally amusing. (But what do I really think?)

Inane talk. Having committed themselves to non-stop, round-the-clock coverage, the news networks now find themselves scrambling to fill up all that air time. Despite being a visual medium, television abhors a silence; they are never content to just let us look at something. Therefore, they fill up all that time with talk, most of which is inane and some of which is just plain stupid.

For example, as soon as the first people were taken captive, a small army of former POWs and psychologists was paraded out and asked trenchant questions:

Q: What are those POWs going through?
A: They're under a lot of stress

Well, duh!

This morning, Paula Zahn (CNN) raised the bar on stupid talk. Having just been handed a bulletin about some supposedly new Saudi peace plan, she turned to the former US ambassador to Iraq and asked — without a hint of irony — "Not knowing what's in it [the peace plan], do you think it might have any merit?"

A large part of the problem is that the press and media keep asking questions that no one can know. The big example of this is, "Will the Iraqis use chemical or biological weapons?" It's a good question, but the question is not being asked of the only people who know the answer. What all this does is fuel speculation and enhance fear.

They don't fight fair! There's a lot of palaver about violations of the Geneva conventions and the laws of war. The Pentagon has cited chapter and verse about the prohibition of exposing prisoners of war "to public curiosity" — meaning showing their pictures on television, especially being "interrogated." Similarly, yellow flags were thrown when some Iraqis feigned surrender or dressed themselves as civilians in order to lure "coalition" forces into ambush. War is by definition a breakdown of law, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to go on about this. Doesn't anybody recall the saying "All's fair in love and war"?

The networks picked up on this with zeal — Charlie Gibson (ABC) even conducted a short-course on the subject — all the while continuing to show pictures from their own field correspondents of Iraqis being taken prisoner, again without a hint of irony. And hardly anyone seems to recall that the US has refused to follow the Conventions with respect to the "detainees" in Guantanamo on the grounds that they are not technically prisoners of war.

Adulation of victims. Americans just love victims. Each new Hero taken captive or killed sets off a predictable series of stories to report the event breathlessly, followed by a mad scramble to interview The Family and ask them how they feel and tell us something personal about their Loved One. If The Family is in tears, all the better. Inevitably there will be the pictures of coffins of The Remains being brought off the plane at Dover AFB.

"There's been a lot of activity here," reported Susan Candiotti (CNN) from the home of captured pilot Ron Young. "There was even a call from the governor.... The local jail sent prisoners over to erect a flag pole in front of the house."

Judy Woodruff probed deeply: "Is it fair to say The Family is getting ongoing updates from the Army?"

At times, these interviews with The Family carry a tone of cloying sensitivity. Aaron Brown (CNN), interviewing another reporter who had interviewed the mother of the first identified POW, asked a series of riveting questions: Was she in tears? Does she have people around her who can give her support? When did she last see her son, talk to him?

Watching Aaron Brown is like watching Mr Rogers without a cardigan. And Judy Woodruff is so earnest she looks to have chronic toothache.

It's enough to make Alan Alda gag.

Don't get me wrong. It's a terrible thing to have people killed, injured, captured (or all of the above, it seems). And of course their friends and relatives are shocked and pained by these events.

Protecting our sensibilities. The logical extension of hyper-sensitivity is self-sensorship. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the tape made by Iraqi TV showing the dead from the ambush of the logistical unit in southern Iraq. All the news people saw the tape, shown on Al Jezeerah and several other networks in the middle east. They all told us that the images were "disturbing" and "troubling," and they would not therefore show them, especially out of consideration of The Families.

The assumption is that the American public is weak and has to be protected from the harshness of the world. We want our wars to be bloodless. Only the enemy can die. Even the killing of the enemy is cloaked in euphemisms: "softening up," "prepare the battlefield," "degrade them," "attrit them," or render them "no longer a threat."

And yet, we expose ourselves with relish to extraordinary gore and mayhem in the movies, in video games, on the six o'clock news.

The sky is falling. After Iraq pleaded with the United Nations for help to avert a humanitarian crisis — which they, of course, caused in the first place — the press took up the hue and cry. "Why hasn't humanitarian aid been delivered to Basra?" demanded Terry Moran during a White House briefing. "Don't you have a plan?" Moran is apparently unimpressed by the fact that the harbor that ships will use to deliver the aid is mined.

A lot of the coverage seems just plain frantic. In the middle of an interview, there will suddenly be a cut to a picture of Baghdad because "sirens are sounding." Never mind that we can't see the sirens. Never mind that we can't see anything except the same two-story building we've seen for five days now. Never mind that the only thing we could see if we could see something would be flashes of light and perhaps plumes of smoke (very informative).

Having started their coverage with a rush of gee-whiz, look at us dash up the desert, the networks have predictably swung their pendula to the other extreme, second guessing and seeing impending disaster everywhere.