24-hour party people? Cable, networks sensationalize war

DeNiro: What’s the thing people remember about the Gulf War? A bomb falling down a chimney. Let me tell you something: I was in the building where we filmed that with a 10-inch model made out of Legos.

Hoffman: Is that true?

DeNiro: Who the hell’s to say?

The above dialogue is taken from the 1998 film “Wag the Dog.” As written by the master of witty repartee, David Mamet, the line succinctly addresses the absurdity of the media coverage of the Gulf War in 1991. The first fully-televised war in history, the coverage of “Operation Desert Storm” still pales in comparison to the coverage of our most recent conflict with Iraq, or, as some like to call it, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Like the bloated sequel to a hit movie, the coverage of “Iraqi Freedom” sought to outdo its predecessor in every area. The television coverage was as surreal as the war itself, offering viewers at times an uncomfortably close look at the fighting. If the actual combat wasn’t enough, there was the elevated threat to the American home front, the consistent second-guessing of the military’s strategy courtesy of politicians in Washington and the is-he-alive-or-dead mystery surrounding the man himself, Saddam Hussein.

I would hardly be the first person to liken the television coverage of the war to a Hollywood production. In our media-conscious age, it’s hard to watch CNN or FoxNews’ live-in-Baghdad coverage and not feel like you’re watching some kind of action film, albeit one with long breaks between the special effects and set pieces. How long will it be before a film sets an over-the-top action scene in Saddam International? Actually, with television’s current binge on reality programming, it was hard not to see some of the footage of some of the soldiers and wonder “Will he make it to the next round?” That’s a sickening thought, but between the around-the-clock coverage and constant death toll scoreboard updates, who wasn’t reminded of reality TV?

At times the coverage was literally too close for comfort, as evidenced by the unprecedented number of reporter casualties. In this day and age of sensationalized media, it was heartening to learn that the networks decided not to show footage of the captured American POWs. It’s good to know that there is still a line that the networks will not cross, though Al-Jazeera was apparently more than happy to air the footage. We don’t get Al-Jazeera in America, at least not yet, but it could really blow the major networks out of the water.

In “Wag the Dog,” the president invades Albania to distract the nation from a sex scandal, and when the war ends too quickly, a POW story is concocted to keep attention away from the sex scandal. There was no need for a distraction story, but Jessica Lynch’s POW rescue made for a great story, and a great counterpoint to the stories covering the unusually large number of deaths caused by friendly fire.

As of now, an estimated 40 percent of coalition soldiers were killed in incidents unrelated to direct enemy fire. These stories are always frustrating, but for the most part they point to the technical complications of how the U.S. wages war. And for the most part, reporters did a good job of humanizing the casualties, though that was perhaps not too difficult a job considering the staggeringly low number of them.

In its early days, coverage of the war was marred by confusion over how long it might last. Almost every day there were different reports from home and the battlefield about whether it was going to be an easy victory or a long haul. Once it became clear just how easy the campaign would be, the coverage by the major networks seemed consistently pro-war, with decreased questioning of our motives and actions and an increase in footage of celebrating Iraqis hugging marines in the streets. CNN even covered a soccer game between some Iraqis and some marines.

My own thoughts on the war aside, I will admit to being pretty easily manipulated by stories and images of the Iraqi people celebrating their newfound freedom. It was satisfying to see people thankful towards America for once. It was satisfying to see the statue of Saddam toppled. But that satisfaction was short-lived, as I said I couldn’t fight the feeling of manipulation. But is the media coverage to blame for these sentiments? Or do the actions of the U.S. government and military bear responsibility? Maybe a lifetime of being manipulated by Hollywood and television and being a jaded college student is at the root of these feelings.

Sickening, engrossing, well-produced, biased, depressing, exciting: any of these adjectives and many more describe the news from late March to early April. While the 24-hour coverage has petered out since the war has been unofficially declared over, it is going to be a long stay in Iraq. And let’s not forget that after Iraq, there are six countries still on the Pentagon’s radar screens – after a while, our point of comparison may not be “Wag the Dog,” but “Friday the 13th.”