Reality Vs Tv. / Shocking And Awful
Notes from the media psywar campaign.
Thursday, March 27, 2003
I had a dyslexic moment, trying to copy what it said on the National Geographic Web site. The slogan came out on my notebook page, "Put the context in conflict," instead of the other way around. At the time, just before ten on Monday night, the once-tweedy but now-trying-to-be-sexy bastion of exploration had an advertisement on its site, in the spot where one might look for news of the latest ecosystem/ tribe/species-in-danger, or for a report by star war correspondent Peter Arnett.
(Arnett is piggyback reporting for Geographic and NBC. The night before he''d been filmed crawling around on the floor of a hotel room across the Tigris River from a bomb impact zone. On his hands and knees, he was doing his shtick-frantically shouting into a cell phone, presumably to anchor Tom Brokaw, "This is Shock and Awe, Tom! This is Shock and Awe!")
But Arnett wasn''t there on the Geographic Web site, nor were stills of the spectacularly brutal explosion footage. Instead, National Geographic was trying to make a buck off the war, hawking atlases of the Middle East with the imperative come-on "Put the Conflict in Context. Up to Date. Definitive. Only US$19.95."
The thing is, that''s what I''d been assigned to do: to put the conflict in context. It was a newspaper assignment like any other: look at whatever is in front of you, listen to it, and write it all down. Think. Then try to explain it.
I''d spent the day at the office with the radio news on and the Internet up. I made a few stops on the way home from work, scooping up a handful of fresh magazines and a six-pack of Heineken. Back at the house I cranked up the home Internet portal and set the channel changer to hop back and forth between CNN and FoxNews. I only needed to press one or two buttons.
It would be a bewildering evening. No one would come out of it smelling like a rose.
Before I start pointing fingers, it''s important to note that this piece breaks the glass-houses rule. If the mainstream press and the networks are promiscuously embedded, the alternative press is content to sit back and take potshots.
The last time around, Coast Weekly actually sent a reporter to the Persian Gulf by snagging a seat on an outbound military cargo plane. This time it would not be so. The nationwide Association of Alternative Newsweeklies says that none of its members have journalists actually on the ground in the combat zone. These newspapers cluck with glee at the failings of mainstream media but did not see the need to provide an "alternative" perspective from the place where the bullets fly.
Instead of battle reportage, it''s reportage of battle reportage-of a war being fought both the old-fashioned way and through the media. That in itself is worth scrutinizing, as watching continuous war coverage, seeking out war news on the Internet and reading all the print media is to be subjected to psychological warfare.
The most frothy and manipulative of the television news coverage is Fox. Prior to commercials they show soldiers and sailors saying hello, or maybe an implied goodbye, from the combat zone. One little snippet shows weeping wives and girlfriends kissing their men before they hop on ships and planes. The anchors end sets with: "What happens if chemical weapons are released? That''s our next report. Good to have you on Fox News Channel."
Every time you turn around, they''re pulling another monster out of the bag. At one point Monday night, Fox showed footage of dark-clad irregulars in masks. Moments later, an embedded Fox reporter said the armored column he was riding with had stalled because of some faintly visible "dark clad figures over the next berm." In addition to a dizzying array of very bad shit, now the "coalition" faces ghosts.
As the night wore on, it got worse. As martial drums pound out of the tube, the anchor said, "Stay brave. Stay aware. Stay with Fox." As if a civilian sitting on couch in Monterey has something to be brave about. And what-only the brave watch Fox? Only the addicted watch Fox.
War is the most serious of all human endeavors. But having conditioned us to the violence of ''reality TV,'' and misled the masses with unrealistic expectations, the media now trivializes war.
On the History Channel there was a program called Mail Call, hosted by the actor Lee Ermey (who played a rabid drill instructor in the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket). The Monday night segment was a tour of an Army ration factory. At the end of it, Ermey made a colorful snack. He mixed some water and cocoa powder in a canteen cup with some Chiclets and pretended to cook it up under the hood of a jeep. Then he pulled it back out. "There you have it. A combat cupcake." If I was going to barf, that was the time.
Having initially lulled everyone with such rosy war news that the Dow surged last week, the news outlets had everyone really hooked when real war started and Americans were killed, wounded and captured over the weekend. No one was afraid to exploit it. The cover of the New York Post showed a photo of dead, bloody American POWs with the large-type headline "SAVAGES." Inside was a story by former Coast Weekly staffer Gersh Kuntzman, running under the headline "Ghouls Parade Our Prisoners." With this week''s war coverage, New York-style demonizing is everywhere.
How could it not spread? A story out of Britain: "War addicts cause TV news to rocket."
At 11:30 or so the Fox anchor (or was it CNN?) was saying that urban warfare in Baghdad could be a problem. A headline ran in the "worm" underneath: "Explosions heard in Baghdad. Planes overhead." Really?
Near midnight, I turned the sound off but left the TV on. A respectable looking man in suit and tie was on the screen making the most incredibly persuasive hand gestures. He swirled them around and cajoled and smoothed with them. His hands were gliding.
He was one of the military analysts hired to explain smart bombs, smallpox contagion or invasion routes or whatever. He had a chart beside him but it was beside the point. Even silent he was mesmerizing. The camera lens distorted the size of his hands and made them larger, setting his big mitts away from his body to make them appear as if they were coming out of the screen. He moved his hands like a preacher, like conjurer, like an inspirational speaker for war. He moved his hands like a puppet master.
I couldn''t take my eyes off him. He made me want to reach for a gun.