Wars should end like miniseries: quick, tidy
Hey, “War Talk” here.
Thanks for those calls and e-mails, and your goggled war-in-the-desert watcher agrees absolutely. What’s with this plodding miniseries that’s going on so long that I have sand in my shoes? I shouldn’t mix metaphors, but talk about a slow boat to China. I ran out of popcorn days ago. Why isn’t this war more like Warner Bros., the front more like “Fear Factor”? Is there a director out there behind the camera, someone who knows how to say, “Cut!”
You’re like me. If you didn’t crave action, you wouldn’t sit gaga in front of your TV watching fleets of cops chase fugitive motorists on L.A. freeways. And action we’ve seen in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, long-range coverage of a few battles and lots of close-up live pictures of “embedded” reporters checking in from aircraft carriers, standing tall in blinding dust and riding toward Baghdad on tanks like hi-yo cowboys. Is NBC’s David Bloom something or not? Love the wind machine whipping his hair. And what about those reporters in Kuwait City doing stand-ups in gasmasks?
But hello! I agree with the tone of some of the news coverage I’ve watched: After a little more than a week of this, why isn’t the war won? No wonder viewers loved World War II in HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” It went just 10 hours. And Richard Burton and his fellow Brits took less than 90 minutes to finish off Rommel in “The Desert Rats.”
So what’s the problem? Let’s gong this to a finish right now.
Don’t President Bush and his generals know Americans are impatient for fast wind-ups? It’s the speed thing they get from newscasts, where stories are hiccuped in sound bites and rarely run longer than a minute, and from interviews whose subjects are told to wrap it up in 30 seconds. Also from prime time, where problems, however epic, are resolved neatly before the final credits.
Why should war be different? When do these final credits roll? Even televised police pursuits ultimately deliver closure, if you can deaden your brain long enough to wait for it.
The U.S. government blames media for creating unrealistic expectations of a short, snappy war -- a little blood, a little bluster, then plant Saddam Hussein in one of his bunkers -- and the media blames the government. MSNBC did something really sneaky Wednesday when it repeatedly re-ran Vice President Dick Cheney asserting on “Meet the Press” just before the war that Iraqi forces wouldn’t offer much resistance. No wonder he’s just No. 2.
That doesn’t let the media off the hook, though. I watch daily press briefings by the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command in Qatar, and many of the questions to military leaders and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld project urgency. As in: Why so slow? As in: With Iraqis fighting back and even taking prisoners, shouldn’t you change your battle plan? As in: Why are you dragging out a war that should have been over in 24 hours?
Some of those TV guys were misled by their own coverage when at the start of the ground campaign TV showed reporters with tank convoys said to be “dashing” or “racing” toward Baghdad as if on Rollerblades. Yeah, yeah, they’re near the city now, but it’s taken more than a week, bummer, compared with Jack Bauer saving us from nuclear holocaust in less than a day on Fox’s “24.” And next, troops will have to fight their way in.
President Bush said Thursday the war “will last however long it takes,” so let’s give him a break. But a week from today, it better be history or we’ll all be plenty mad.
Back in a minute.
More “War Talk” here, and my take on the coverage.
I love the “embedding” of media with combat units that raises the bar of war reporting, love the technology that generates amazing instant images, including troops saying hello to mom one minute, heading off to battle the next. How surreal to observe war in Iraq from Los Angeles in real time, even if these are just snapshots in a larger scrapbook.
“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt, whose career spans the life of TV news, says he’s awed by the media’s performance in Iraq. “Let’s hope,” he added on CNN about the indelible coverage, “that when it’s all over, it’s produced more than a stunning television show.”
Not entirely stunning. Some of those bringing you this story on TV believe their mission as journalists is to pluck viewers’ heartstrings like banjos. Take Wednesday morning when CNN anchor Paula Zahn was on sentry duty when the National Anthem was sung as the president entered MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to rally the troops and talk up the war in a pep talk all major networks aired live.
“If it doesn’t stir you,” Zahn said about the anthem, “I don’t know what will as the U.S. faces this crossroads in this crisis.”
I appreciated Zahn thinking enough of viewers to advise them how to feel. Actually, though, I wasn’t stirred and wondered if I was being disloyal until I got a grip and realized that the real crises here are sanctimonious TV types who cross a line when insinuating themselves and their opinions into stories.
When it comes to the all-news channels, by the way, I’m bothered also by unconfirmed reports. You know, the ones they “will continue to monitor,” then tell you later they were wrong if you’re around to hear it at 2 a.m. “Unconfirmed report” is code for rumor.
I’m teed-off even more at “confirmed” reports that turn out to be false. Impaling itself on its own pro-war, pro-Bush zeal, for example, was the Fox News Channel when it reported very late Sunday night that Pentagon sources had confirmed a story in the Jerusalem Post that U.S. troops had found in Najaf “the first Iraqi installation that appears to have produced chemical weapons.”
That’s right, a blockbuster, at last a smoking gun that would have Fox’s bandoleered I-told-you-so’s surely pouring out of the barracks for a verbal assault on Bush doubters.
That’s where it stood when I checked out about midnight, only to learn the next day that the Pentagon had called the story untrue.
And another thing, while the U.S. targets hearts and minds of Iraqis, opportunists at KNBC Channel 4 in Los Angeles are aiming for the hearts and minds of viewers with its wartime featurette “Ask the Colonel.”
KNBC has reporter Conan Nolan in Kuwait. Giving new meaning to team coverage, however, e-mailed questions about the war get answered by the station’s on-screen military guru, Wes May, a highly telegenic retired Marine colonel whose map sessions with admiring news anchors wrap him in celebrity.
There may be more military men in TV studios these days than at the front, some granted air time to lecture endlessly, others limited to segments with catchy titles counted down by stopwatch.
Although he’s no Col. Wes, for example, retired Air Force Col. John Warden stars daily in “The Military Minute” on MSNBC, 60 seconds of covering the war in Iraq. Sample from Thursday: “This is all going downhill for Saddam Hussein.”
Yup, another week should do it.
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org