What a shock. I'd just spent the first two weeks of 1991 in Ireland, and was beginning to take for granted that country's deeply researched and reasoned media coverage of the massing tensions in the Persian Gulf. But when I got home, switched on the TV and saw the first bombs dropping on Baghdad, it was clear that the Irish, in thir overwhelming support for a diplomatic solution, were missing the point: A Middle East peace conference could never have realized the goals of those Desert Storm-troopers in the White House--namely, to tie a yellow ribbon round the grim picture of a bank-busted, recessionary economy and bury it deeper than Saddam Hussein's bunker.
Television demonstrates what a relief this war was offered to many public figures. George Bush has lost his lockjaw look and picked up some Reaganesque by-golly, as in his reference to "the darndest search-and-destroy effort that has ever been undertaken." Now he's on a first-name basis with the enemy, wrapping just enough of his fake homefolks accent around the word Saddam so that it sometimes sounds like Sodom, sometimes Satan.
George Will looks visibly relieved as well. All those years of Sunday-mannered conservatism have paid off: With current events absolving him, the choirboy can start lobbing those stored-up cherry bombs. Less than thirty hours after the first shot was fired on Iraq, Will showed up on Nigtline, his eyes flashing with a possessed, triumphant light. "Someone should send Saddam Hussein the PBS series on the Civil War]" spake the hyperventilating Will in a voice so like Dr. Strangelove's that I expected to see one of his hands leap forward to keep the other from rocketing skyward. Three days later on This Week With David Brinkley, Will was lyrical and fervent as he phrophesied: "There's more to S.D.I. than the Patriot, as you will learn to your pleasure sooner or later]" And what delight to see consumer-advocate ninnies eating crow at the vindication of "the military-industrial complex, much maligned since Eisenhower coined the phrase.... It turns out they make some pretty good products." Only a party pooper would show Will stories by Fred Kaplan in The Boston Globe demonstrating that U.S. infantry fighting vehicles are frighteningly inadequate for desert showdowns.
Life's been a lot easier for the anchors, too, who no longer have to pretend attentiveness to the fine points of Third World culture. Hear Jingo Belle Deborah Norville ask no one in particular, "I wonder what language they speak in Kuwait?" Hear Neo-Nativist Bryant Gumbel giggle on camera when asking Norville, after a Colonel Yacoub finished offering his views on the Middle East, "Did you understand a word he said? I didn't]" Gumbel then went on to tell a story from the Afghan war, when he was sent a guest he'd been assured was "high, high up in the mujahedeen" ("a big mucketymuck," offered Norville). Well, continued Gumbel, they got this guy on camera and "he proceeded to talk and ..." (Gumbel makes a face of astonished incomprehension). What language was he speaking? asked Norville. Gumbel: "I have NO idea]" Norville: "Blubbedyblubbedyblubbedy]? Gumbel: "You're just trying to restrain yourself from laughing]" Infidels say the darndest things.
This ecumenical embrace was aired on Monday morning, January i1--the holiday honoring Nobel Peace Price laureate Martin Luther King Jr. King was conspicuously absent from NBC's programming: I watched the network's news from 6 A.M., and King's name was not heard until a brief snipped of video at 9:35 A.M., showing Coretta Scott King delivering the annual "State of the Dream" address. But they didn't bother to air Coretta's voice declaring, "In 1991 we have to work closer together to protest and march and speak out more often, until preparing for education is a greater priority in everny nation than preparing for war." Instead, on the heels of the King item they aired one of those appalling public service announcements that, under the slogan "The more your know...," offers some of the kind of cheery, quick-fix, no-cash solutions to the education crisis (play games with your kids, count the stars together, etc.) that Poppy had in mind when he called himself the Education President. (Speaking of commercials, it would have been interesting to have spent the past five months on Madison Avenue, finding out how products were being packaged to get maximum bang for their war bucks. A number of commercials have been gulf-streamed into P.S.A.s. One features a preachy-dad voiceover reminding you how much petroleum you waste because your foot won't Just Stay No to the accelerator: "Let's put our energy into saving it," says another quick-fix apostle, as the logo for Texaco floats over the screen.
The silence of Coretta Scott King is one of the more egregious insults by a TV news-reporting establishment that, in the face of massive censorship by the military of all Middle East war coverage, has been only too eager to show the Pentagon how well it behaves on the home front as well. On Donahue, Phil cited The New York Times's foreign correspondent Malcolm Browne, who likened the new cut-to-Pentagon-standards media corps to Propaganda Kompagnien, Goebbels's troop of war journalists specially trained to make Nazi military exploits & Accuracy fresh and glorious. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting's recent media survey exposes the networks as having snuggled into Poppy's back pocket for some time now, virtually suppressing news of popular opposition since August. And it's not just an absence of protest footage> FAIR reports that "none of the foreign policy experts associated with the peace movement--such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky or the scholars of the Institute for Policy Studies--appeared on any nightly network news program." Of the nominal TV coverage accorded to Jesse Jackson's trip to Iraq, "none of these stories included any quotes from Jackson." The networks have undergone a Moonie-style mass conversion to the doctrine that the only true expert is a general with a pension. Look at the Hannibal of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Gen. William Westmoreland, on Good Morning America, referring to the Iraqi leader as "Sadat Hussein": Put a burnoose over their heads and they're all the same.
Clearly, untold amounts of network energy have gone into making this one a breathtakinly telegenic war, from the snappy America-at-War graphics to the strict policing of the East-West sartorial frontier: stateside correspondents almost metallically smooth and hard looking, with crisp haircuts and sharp suits> gulf correspondence rough-and-ready in tousled hair, wearing something very Banana Republic--open-naked with epaulettes--even if they don't caravan any farther than the hotel bar. A recent David Letterman comment about one NBC war correspondent reinforces the new dogma that never the frontline/anchor twain shall meet. "Arthur Kent won't get Tom Brokaw's job--he hasn't got the hair. Kent's got field hair."
The work "antiseptic" has been applied to the Pentagon's warfare style thus far: what a break for network chiefs, who have to content with the fact that far more Americans have color TV sets today than at the outset of the Vietnam War. What could make the network's war-design departmets happier than military briefers like Rear Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher? "This is not a video game," admonishes Lautenbacher, as he proceeds to showus a video game. The admiral knows that America wants no more maimed bodies served nightly on the news. Here's something you can watch while you eat your dinner: no soldier bleeding copiously into a Southeast Asian jungle, but a neat electronic color-field painting in which a red blot flowers against green geometry. Both the image and the explanation--"That was a strategic target which I prefer to identify as a strategic targe"--are nonspecific enought to be soothing. When pundits and generals talk about "the mistakes of Vietnam," messy, distressing news is at the top of their list.
One way to avoid messiness is to avoid broadening the discussion--hence the small pool military pensioners as the experts, and virtually no coverage of dissent. But an even more effective tool is velocity: Keep the segments short, go for the yes-or-no answer and banish even the tiniest opportunity for pause and reflection. Cut-to-commerical music is being used with far greater frequency to snuff the sentences of those who can't keep it snappy.
While such breathless charing through current events has been the American TV standard for years, in the past few weeks the acceleration has been dramatic. One place where its well on display, along with the networks' cynicism and opportunism, is in the ubiquitous instant programming segments with names like "Kids Ask About War" and "The Littlest Victims." On the day after the war started, Good Morning America's Miriam Hernandez was in an eighth-grade classroom in Arlington, Virginia, sticking a microphone in each child's face and asking what she or he thought about the war. Woe to the children who didn't understand the principle of the soundbite> before their sentences ended they were cut off with a crisp "Thank you."
Anyone who's at home all day can tell you that news reports and commentary go on not just in the standard morning and evening slots but throughout the day on a variety of talk and magazine-format shows. As in newsland, the keep-it-moving protocol rules. On ABC's Home show, Mexican-America actor Edward James Olmos was permitted to talk on acceptable Latino-makes-good topics (teaching kids how to avoid barrio warfare and drugs). But with the gulf war just a few days old, Olmos was concerned about another minority. "Now that this war has started," he said, "how are we going to look at Amerians who are Arab or Muslim?" "That's a question that's gonna take some time to answer," offered host Gary Collins. "Let's take a break." But instead of an answer, after the commercials we got the Harlem Globetrotters.
Sally Jessy Raphael did her bit for the war: Twenty women whose men got shipped out to Saudi Arabia were given makeovers. Their guys in the gulf wil then receive the before-and-after photos. The show--two-thirds of which was pre-empted by military briefings--managed to give a lot of weeping women in new hairdos a chance to air their feelings to the tune of about seven words apiece. Here's a taste:
Sally: Hold it together, Amy. You okay?... There are not a lot of men who have...women as beautiful as you.... Amy: They pampered us a lot.... Sally (points to photos): That's the old Amy and this is the new. Do you think you can keep that up? Amy: ... I don't think so, without them at home.
Tabloid TV products like A Current Affair manage to sandwich in plenty of human-interest gulf stories between their usual servings of "Funny Man Murder Mystery" and "Pasta al Porno." A Current Affair allows such savvy war profiteers as Dr. Joyce Brothers to telescope nimbly a thirty-second housecall into instant War and Remembrance. To a 10-year-old girl whose uncle had just left for Desert Storm, a war only five yeas old at that point, Brothers inquired, "Do you think this war has made you grow up too soon?"
And instant oral-history projects too: As soon as the war commenced, Hard Copy dispatched correspondents to America's six time zones to see how The People were living with an hours-old war 6,000 miles away. In Los Angeles, correspondent Dean Vallas thrust a microphone at men in a shelter for the homeless, demanding, "Are you supporting your country?" "The American voice was as one," exulted Hard Copy's reporter Barry Nolan, who was corroborated by a man in Anchorage who declared the war "great" and pronounced his response to be "every true American's opinion.... And anybody who doesn't like it shouldn't be here." In Greenwich Village, an entire station house of police officers attached yellow ribbons to their badges. There were no reports of reprimands for this violation of uniform code--I wonder if superior officers would gaze so mildly if officers dangled pink ACT UP triangles from their badges.
Only one dissenting voice wiggled through the loud patriot chorus. Traveling across the Southwest by train, an elderly woman told Hard Copy's correspondent Rafael Abramovitz: "I don't want to lose my grandsons.... It's a whole way of life [in the Middle East] that we don't understand. And we are imposing ourselves on them."
Joan River's early contributions to the war effort included her reporting the fact that actress Margot Kidder had announced her opposition to the bombing of Iraq. Joan then added the utter falsehood that Margot had backed down on her antiwar position with the words, "I'm a kidder."
Joan's gulfward comic aim hasn't strayed from the easy bull's-eye of Saddam-bashing ("He's sixty feet underground? I'd be happy if it was just six feet]... Do you believe how ugly he is? And in his country they make the women wear veils"). Jay Leno's been delivering much of the same to Tonight Show audiences: "I just found out that in 1969, Saddam Hussein got a degree in law.... If we'd known he was a lawyer, we would have killed him back in August]... More bad news for Saddam Hussein: Rand McNally just came out with the 1991 atlas--and Iraq is not in it."
It wasn't too much of a surpise that Saturday Night Live's very first show after Bush launched the gulf war would not risk alienating its beer-boy constituency with any daring takeoffs on the U.S. forces' mad-dog Commander in Chief. One SNL segment--a satire on John McLaughlin's Sunday-morning news squabbles--had terrific potential. This time it was called "The Sinatra Report." So why didn't SNL go bananas on the gulf and let Old Blue Eyes take the blame? Instead of letting Frankie flay peaceniks and caress wareheads, they had him take uncharacteristically safe shots at Milli Vamilli and MTV.
Most disappointing of all was the guest host: STing, who's written songs against nuclear holocaust and had photo ops with Amazon Indian chiefs to save the rain forest, uttered not a syllable against the war.
But "Wayne's World," SNL's regular sendup of public-access programming, provided an ingenious summation of the war issues that truly preoccupy the network brass. "Wayne's World" usually finds two adolescent boys, Wayne and his sidekick, Garth, doing their community cable broadcast from Wayne's parents' basement. On the Saturday after the first bombs fell on Iraq, they've been awake for three days straight, drinking Jolt cola in a room filled with televisions, doing nonstop monitoring of all the networks' war coverage. Now they're ready to announce their "Best/Worst List of Media Coverage." Among the picks werE, Best name of a correspondent: Brit Hume ("Sounds like James Bond"). Best military hardware name: Scud. Worst map: Nightlin's ("I built a volcano in the third grade that was better than that"). Worst cut-to-commercial music: CNN's ("It's just drums] Hey, spend some money: It's a war").
Margaret Spillane is a writer and painter living in New Haven.
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|Title Annotation:||television coverage of Persian Gulf War|
|Date:||Feb 25, 1991|
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