War? What war?

As the Iraq nightmare deepens, Fox News and its cable competitors wallow in shark attacks and Natalee Holloway. If you don't cover a war, does it exist?

Topics: Fox News, Iraq war,

War? What war?

Almost four years ago, the American right launched a great moral crusade. Sept. 11 had changed everything forever, the war party and its supporters repeated. The apostles of the New Righteousness used the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center to anathematize anyone who failed to embrace the cause. To dissent, even to analyze, was to dishonor the dead, virtually to commit high treason. Those few who tried to stop King George’s Crusade from marching to Jerusalem (or Baghdad, in this millennium-later iteration) were swept away like the black protesters in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, hosed off the streets not with water but with the saintly blood of the 9/11 victims. Pundits railed against an elitist “Fifth Column” and compared dissenters to Neville Chamberlain-like “appeasers.” In one of the great failures of the opposition in American history, the Democrats and the mainstream media joined the angry mob. A few mumbled some pathetic caveats as they waved their pitchforks, but their bleats were drowned out as the patriotic horde swept on to Infinite Justice.

Beyond the calls to war and vengeance, Americans were told that this was a transforming moment, an epiphany. It was a Great Awakening, not just a political but a spiritual watershed. Pious writers insisted that after 9/11, irony was dead. Analysts from across the political spectrum argued that the terror attacks, like a vast memento mori, were a manifestation of death and evil that would forever change our superficial, sensation-addled culture. The astute New York Times columnist Frank Rich criticized the media for its petty pre-9/11 obsessions with such ephemera as shark attacks and tawdry murder cases. In the dark months after the attacks, the left and right agreed that the new era should, must, be one of dignity and gravitas. For conservatives, those qualities were in the service of anger; for liberals, of analysis — but there was no disagreement about the need for transformation.

Today, the issue of how to comport ourselves in the wake of 9/11 is moot: It has been almost four years since the attacks, and most Americans — without forgetting the tragedy or disrespecting the dead — have gotten over it. But our current situation raises almost identical issues, of morality, personal conscience and the responsibility of the media.

For those opposed to the Iraq war and appalled by the moralistic blackmail practiced by the right, it has never been easy to separate legitimate mourning and reflection on the significance of 9/11 from hysteria and unreflective anger. (Indeed, one of the sadder consequences of George W. Bush’s divisive war has been the way it has scattered what could have been a shared American grief.) The “9/11 changed everything” line became a tool used by the right; it overstated the significance of what was not, historically speaking, an epochal event, and implicitly laid the groundwork for the Iraq war.

In fact, soon after the trauma of 9/11 faded it became clear that the demands for a permanent change in American manners and mores were naive at best and overbearing at worst. Moralistic pronouncements about what we should think or watch are tiresome, would result in terrible sitcoms and in any case are doomed to be defeated by what Daniel Bell called “the cultural contradictions of capitalism.” No one would really expect, or want, American culture to suddenly abandon irony, or even its obsession with shark attacks, weird real people conniving against each other on prime time and addictive murder cases. What’s the use of defeating a global enemy if as a result you can’t watch “America’s Next Top Model”?

Still, one need not be a Victorian, or Marxist, moralist to find some of those cultural contradictions pretty appalling — and getting worse all the time.

We are at war. Dozens of Americans are dying every month, and hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis, and there is no end in sight. It is a situation that calls for seriousness, analysis and reflection — in a word, for respect.

So one might expect that the mass media — and in particular, those media outlets that were the most aggressive in calling for war — would treat the war with at least a modicum of respect, and cover it seriously.

But if one expected that, one would be colossally wrong. Welcome to Fox’s America, land of dissociation, where war isn’t real but must be supported at all costs.

Fox News is rapidly becoming an essential if faintly horrific guide to the American soul, a kind of cross between an organ and a tumor. Fox is certainly not the only offender — its cable competitors CNN and MSNBC are chasing the same ratings, and are guilty of similar sins — but it’s the most egregious. Those who have watched Fox News recently must feel as if they had fallen into a bizarre time and logic warp out of Philip K. Dick, where 9/11 never happened (except when necessary to drum up support for the war on Iraq, which also doesn’t exist except when it has to be defended) and we’ve returned to those happy summer days when lurid, sexually charged murder cases and shark attacks were not just the most important stories, they were the only stories.

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On Fox these days, it’s all Natalee Holloway, all the time, with breaks for “news alerts” about shark attacks. Probably the only thing that could have knocked the young woman who went missing in Aruba off the Fox air was a speech by Bush, and it did. Fox dragged itself away from Holloway long enough on Tuesday to preview the president’s prime-time speech, trotting out the usual “expert” ostriches who intoned through mouthfuls of sand that only a “steadfast message” would calm the markets and the country, as well as a long-haired right-winger in the Ted Nugent mold who informed us that the Allies had to fight Nazi terrorists after the end of World War II for 10 years. With its usual reverence, Fox also covered Bush’s speech itself, an utterly insignificant offering that seemed to have been spliced together from earlier “inspiring” Bush sound bites. Bush sought to rally support for the increasingly disastrous war by saying we had to fight the terrorists “where they are making their stand” — leaving out the inconvenient fact that they were not there before he invaded. His halftime locker-room address may have been intended to recall the steely resolve of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall never surrender” speech, but for students of military history it may instead have summoned the words of Adolf Hitler, who proclaimed to the commander of his doomed troops in Stalingrad, “Where the soldier of Germany sets foot, there he remains.”

But Fox’s all-consuming interest is in the Holloway case, upon whose resolution the fate of the republic apparently rests. Tuesday, a short news segment opened with a live report from that epicenter of world news, Aruba, with a grim-looking reporter standing on the beach, intoning something ominous about Holloway. On Monday, its news programming was even more dominated by Holloway (a highlight was when Geraldo Rivera suggested putting military pressure on the Dutch marines to help find her body) and lovingly detailed accounts of the gory Florida shark attacks. John Gibson opened his “The Big Story” show by intoning, “This is a Fox News alert” — then proceeded to inform his viewers of the urgent news that a boy who was attacked by a shark had his leg amputated, before going on to interview a shark expert. The contrast between Fox’s resolute avoidance of showing bloody images from the war in Iraq and its nearly pornographic immersion in shark bites and unsolved murders, was glaring. Only death or bloodshed with high entertainment value gets on Fox.

In this context, it was remarkable that Fox host Neil Cavuto was able to maintain a straight face when he asked oilman T. Boone Pickens, “Does it trouble you the way the war is presented in the media?” — a question so embarrassingly Jeff Gannon-esque that even Pickens retorted, “That’s a loaded question.” There’s no problem with such “liberal media” bias at Fox: If it doesn’t like the way the war is going, it just doesn’t cover it. (Bush and Fox always sing from the same hymnal. In a not-so-subtle passage in his speech, Bush implicitly chastised news outlets for running images of bombings in Iraq, saying the insurgents carry them out “for the cameras.”)

If Fox had not been such an ardent supporter of the war, its tabloid wallowing might be merely irritating. As it is, it’s disgusting — the contrast between Fox’s earlier moralizing and its current pandering feels debased, almost depraved. Fox has not lived up to the war it demanded, and it’s hard to believe that even supporters of the war aren’t offended by this. But for today’s right wing, including those blowhards who make careers out of decrying “the death of outrage” and the loss of Victorian virtues and other sins for which liberal “relativism” and “moral cowardice” are responsible, the idea that war should be covered with dignity and seriousness is as quaint as the Geneva Conventions: What matters is propaganda, effectiveness. If you want to win a war, and it’s going badly, and its continued prosecution (or the political effectiveness of the president) depends upon the opinion of the American people, then you don’t cover it, or you whitewash it. Hence the violent anger, in some conservative quarters, at the “Nightline” programs that showed the U.S. dead in Iraq. That the ultimate act of disrespect for the dead is to ignore them apparently does not matter.

If only the war in Iraq had been the video-game cakewalk the Bush administration promised, Fox wouldn’t have had to deal with this taste problem. After all, everyone knew at the time that the most pro-war cable channel was also the one that wallowed most luxuriantly in shark attacks, tawdry murder cases and cheesy sexual titillation. There seemed no reason at the time that this should trouble anyone: After all, we were going to swagger into Iraq, kick Saddam’s evil ass, declare “Mission accomplished” and swagger back to a hero’s greeting of wonderfully pneumatic blond babes in bikinis on some cool Pacific island where the beer flows 24/7. This wasn’t going to be a war, it was going to be another hit reality show — “Survivor” without casualties, where all the dudes score with the chicks! Plus, if gravitas was needed for some reason, like if somehow a GI actually got killed or something, all the news anchors were wearing U.S. flag pins in their lapels and were pumped to get deeply emotional and patriotic at a moment’s notice.

Still, it is now slowly beginning to dawn on the American people — perhaps even on Fox, although it is not going to do anything about it — that there is a disconnect at the heart of the war party’s rhetoric about the grand mission, a deeply mixed message, and that this is doing something bad to our national character. After 9/11 Bush told Americans that they were embarked on a great struggle, the “war on terror,” and he periodically appealed to their fear and anger. But he has demanded no sacrifice — unless slapping a $1 yellow “Support Our Troops” sticker on the back of your car counts as a sacrifice. In his speech Tuesday, Bush seemed aware that the war is a phantom, disconnected from American reality: He appealed to the country to make some gesture of support to the troops on July 4. It was a pathetic, token appeal that will do little or nothing to unify the country. Perhaps it will raise some troops’ morale, but properly armored vehicles would do far more.

In the end, the larger question of how television should cover war today remains unexplored. In this era of a toothless and intimidated media, this is not surprising: It’s an explosive issue, one that places the media in direct opposition to power. Governments never want their citizens to know the truth about war. Fox News or any other media organization could argue, legitimately enough from the traditional war-coverage perspective, that U.S. casualties in Iraq are so low that covering them in detail, in the modern age of instant mass transmission, of color film and close-ups, would be both unnecessary and a manifestation of antiwar bias, since the bloody images would harm national morale. This is, of course, a debate as old as the Vietnam War: Some conservatives insisted that the American people only rejected that war when body bags began appearing on the screen, and they demanded — and demand now — that the media serve as an instrument of the government.

In fact, this attitude patronizes the American people and imposes a kind of national repression about the actual realities of war that is deeply unhealthy. That unhealthiness, a kind of spiritual rot, rises up not just from Fox’s coverage but from all war coverage that flinches, that glosses over, that pleads “taste,” that pleads “we’re a family newspaper,” that does not actually depict what happens when you go to war.

I am not a pacifist: I accept that there may be times when it is necessary to go to war. But if we do make that ultimate decision, we should do it knowing — and seeing — what war does.

We now live in an age of near-total information. In our fear and uncertainty about this unprecedented state of affairs, magnified by our underlying confusion about how to deal with war, we have embraced near-total repression. As a result, this war has been absurdly sanitized. It’s time to grow up, to make ourselves face the real boogeyman of war — not fake ones like the BTK killer, now safely behind bars and telling his gruesome tales for our horrified titillation. As Chris Hedges, one of the most unflinching chroniclers of war, has noted, modern war is “industrialized slaughter.” Or, as some GI somewhere put it, war is “about blowing motherfuckers up.” It’s about heads getting shot off, and faces torn apart, and babies cut in two, and everything else horrible that can happen to a human body when big pieces of metal hit it at incredible speed. That is what war is — no more, no less. Goya knew this; he drew it in his “Disasters of War,” and under one of his hideous etchings he wrote these simple words: “This always happens.”

This always happens: Every combat veteran knows this about war, but the politicians who make war don’t, or don’t tell. Yes, compared with World War II, or even Vietnam, not many American troops are dying in Iraq. But every GI who dies in Iraq, and every dead Iraqi civilian we don’t count, is a human being like you or me, and as worthy of memorializing as the people who died in the World Trade Center — certainly as Natalee Holloway. It’s time, long past time, for the media to get real about war. Until it does, the TV channels will just be filled with bread and circuses and lies. And the Great Awakening that was supposed to be ushered in will be revealed to be a restless sleep, haunted by shabby, mean-spirited dreams.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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