Live from Baghdad: Gathering News at Ground Zero.
In the light of such forgetfulness, two new books by journalists dealing with the Gulf War should be welcome arrivals. The fact that they're not only seems to push that vague and unfortunate conflict even further out of reach as a topic worthy of discussion. Of the pair, "Live From Baghdad" is the worse offender. The author, Robert Wiener, was CNN's executive producer in Baghdad during the war and the book chronicles five months of his network's coverage "at ground zero."
Considering the sheer power of the images CNN broadcast to the world, especially in the early days of the fighting, the book's appeal must have seemed like a sure thing. Not only did the country regain its pride by shaking off the Vietnam syndrome, but the plucky, upstart CNN kicked sand in the face of the Big Three networks by sticking it out in Baghdad after everyone else (cowards that they are, you can almost hear the author adding under his breath) had abandoned ship.
For the most part, the book reads more like the breathless, feverish jottings of a college intern going through his ordeal by fire than the work of a professional journalist: "If we could somehow pull it off," the author muses, "it would be the journalistic equivalent of walking on the moon ... to cover a war live" ... in real time, from behind the lines ... from the enemy's capital!"
Such outbursts might have been tolerable if Wiener's focus had remained on the difficulties of gathering news in pre-war Iraq. Unfortunately, he insists on telling the story as the adventures of a wacky, dedicated, hard-drinking bunch of cable warriors. ("We're the fuckin' pathfinders ... yeah!" Wiener quotes his cameraman with obvious affection and approval.)
Despite a life of rushing around for interviews, berating the technological backwardness of Third World countries, and invoking the spirit of Edward R. Murrow (always a useful badge of legitimacy), Wiener finds plenty of space to let the reader in on the personal moments of his crew. It's all here: the cheerful obscenities, the scatalogical observations, and the general horniness of the men. When he does manage to find a few moments to lean back and reflect on the war, Wiener suddenly becomes as confused and inarticulate as a hungover fraternity jock: "The fact is it's all so fucked. Neither side can see the other's point of view."
Actually, I think the other side's point of view could be understood if given a chance. However, it won't happen by.reading this book, whose sole redemption is introducing into the English language a new derogatory adjective based on the author's name: Wienerish.
In most ways, "Forty Days" by Bob Simon occupies a vastly different sphere than "Live From Baghdad." Simon is the CBS News correspondent taken hostage by Iraqis shortly after the beginning of the war. Anyone familiar with Simon's work for CBS will not be surprised at the author's thoughtful, eloquent account of the ordeal.
Frustrated with the restrictions on journalists, Simon and his crew had crossed the Saudi border into Kuwait in the hopes of finding out a little bit more about the war. "We weren't" he writes, "combing the desert for scoops, revelations, or prizes. We just wanted to break away from the pack because it was becoming clear that the Pentagon was not planning to lead the pack anywhere anything was happening."
Once captive, Simon endured forty days of intermittent beatings and interrogations. Thrown into a notorious Baghdad prison and placed in solitary confinement, he meditated on many things to help pass the time, in particular on what he calls the secret credo of the journalist. "We are voyeurs at heart ... You took a peek at the forbidden, you undressed an event: you didn't get involved, you just watched, then you told the world what you'd seen."
It's difficult to criticize any hostage account, especially when it's written with as much modesty and candor as Simon's. The author is particularly good at conveying the sense of oppression and manipulation that permeated his life as a prisoner. Especially tantalizing are the all too brief descriptions of some of his more sympathetic captors. Their small acts of kindness somehow give the book the balance it otherwise lacks. As one of Simon's guards cheerfully reminds him: "Mr. Bob very big man in America. But Mr. Bob very little man in Iraq."