God bless you, Laura Ingraham!

The Kosovo squabbling of yesterday's Monicagate hacks may be dumb -- but it beats flag-waving silence.

Published April 19, 1999 7:42PM (EDT)

In her 1998 book "The Argument Culture," linguist Deborah Tannen argued -- sorry, she, um, "posited" or something -- that society in general and the media in particular are itchin' to fight; that public discourse is dominated by battle metaphors, debate outranks dialogue and squabbling is seen as the best way to address any problem. It's a well-substantiated thesis, one borne out daily on cable news, where no issue is so complex or nuanced that it can't be screamed over 24/7, preferably by two Nautilus-toned 18- to 34-year-olds with book deals.

Since the war in Kosovo broke out, though, I've wondered whether the argument culture is a total loss. "The Argument Culture" arrived last spring, when the Lewinsky scandal convinced us all that civic discourse had gone down the toilet (flushed, of course, by whomever we happened personally to disagree with). But that concern seems a lot more pressing in a prosperous, peaceful country distracted by a sex-and-perjury scandal. It is a fortunate nation indeed that worries about having too much public argument.

In a prosperous, carpet-bombing country, the picture is a little murkier. With Kosovo, cable news is still doing plenty of what it does worst: casting every issue in GOP vs. Dems. terms, pumping up stories to fill air time and appeal to human interest ("Balkans Shocker! Soldiers Captured During War!"). Still, I can't help thinking of winter 1991, when newspapers, broadcast networks -- and one cable channel -- catered to a yellow-ribbon-sporting audience in covering a popular war, barely squeaking as the Pentagon limited their access and sanitized their adjectives (famously changing "giddy" to "proud" in one description of a pilot) and largely limiting anti-war voices to noncredible Iraqi government mouthpieces. Whatever problems there still are, this time NATO is at least coming in for daily and nightly criticism -- and for that, thank the argument culture.

In other words -- and God help me for saying this -- bless you, Laura Ingraham. Bless you, "Crossfire." Bless you, Hannity and Colmes, or Cannity and Holmes, or whichever the hell of you is which.

Granted, Ingraham, the Lewinsky-era media star now hosting the MSNBC morning show "Watch It!" has been a living argument for mandatory conscription of television personalities, with her flabbergastingly trivializing bon mots de guerre ("I don't think 'Be all that you can be in Kosovo' is going to fly at the recruiting stations!" she sniffed recently). But in 1991 it would have been a relief to have cable channels airing two parties -- even Oliver North and Paul Begala -- nightly debating Bush administration policy mid-war. (Former Clinton mouthpiece Begala last week joined MSNBC's "Equal Time" with North, having escaped the White House only to enter a "Twilight Zone" hell where he must spin the president's meretricious double talk for eternity: "No, he said he didn't intend to send ground troops!")

You can hardly turn on cable news today without finding someone arguing the Serbian side of the conflict -- or, at least, a politico blustering against interventionism (a take that in '91 tarred Pat Buchanan as a possibly anti-Semitic nut job; today, he can barely squeeze into the front row of America Firsters). And like it or not, this is happening precisely because of what we decried last year: that cable news likes nothing better than a fight, that all national issues have turned into partisan politics.

That may not mean refined or enlightening dialogue. It may mean the end of public decorum and bipartisanship. But it may also mean the end of shutting up and supporting the troops. There are times when constant argument -- constant pinheaded argument by former presidential stooges, even -- is better than none.

Is it really an improvement? For a dose of 1991 nostalgia, check out Newsweek's cover story "Milosevic: The Face of Evil," which has all the subtlety of those 1980-era bootleg T-shirts of Mickey Mouse giving the Ayatollah the finger. One key paragraph begins with a textbook example of scene-setting pathetic fallacy: "Milosevic was born in 1941 in Pozarevac, an ugly, dusty industrial town" (italics mine; reports that buzzards blotted out the sun that day and that he once killed a man just for spittin' in the road could not be confirmed by press time). He started off as a party apparatchik. He's "prone to black depressions," we learn. "'He's not over the edge but he's not all there, either,' as one Clinton administration official puts it." And -- make sure the kids aren't reading this -- "He certainly drinks -- whiskey and wine"!

Sound like a figure no democracy could rationally tolerate? More to the point, sound like anyone else you know? (Hint: replace "whiskey and wine" with "vodka," "Kosovo" with "Chechnya" and "bomb his military and communications infrastructure" with "desperately support his reelection and secure him billions in IMF loans.")

On one hand, I worry about criticizing the media for "making Milosevic into Hitler," as if Hitler represents some sort of minimum benchmark of evil below which we all need to be relativists. But there's ample information in the man's risumi to cloud his record without resorting to this sort of belles-lettristic mustache painting and Temperance League indignation. Putting Milosevic on the cover as "the face of evil" in, oh, 1993 might have been adventurous; today it's bandwagon-jumping. Newsweek might at least acknowledge the curious fact that it and the rest of the American press have suddenly decided to crown Milosevic Miss Lebensraum 1999 when he has in fact led the swimsuit and talent competitions for years running.

Now, cable news has often spun the war just as badly or worse. There have been plenty of our-kids-over-there glory stories (e.g. an embarrassing CNN profile on a submarine crew: "There is no celebration ... just the satisfaction of knowing they've done the job they were trained to do. And done it well"); anchors calling NATO troops "we"; dehumanizing rhetoric (John Gibson, just for one, calling Serbian actions in Kosovo "inhuman"); and lengthy Pentagon and State Department press conferences when the cable networks essentially become NATO-TV. (Small wonder NATO demanded that Serbian TV allot air time to Western news, just before blowing up Serbian transmitters in a particularly forceful act of media criticism.) But by retooling the Monica-era shoutfest for combat, the cable networks may, ironically, have made their one positive contribution to war coverage.

The evaporation of public and journalistic opposition in Yugoslavia has been made a prime exhibit against the Bastard of Belgrade, yet consider how easily press circumspection has dried up during wartime in the U.S. -- where, excepting Pearl Harbor, enemy bombs have been as common in this century as typhoons. (Just imagine what a single Oklahoma City-style Iraqi strike in January 1991 would have done to the already emasculated U.S. press.) Cable news today is playing to a relatively divided public; it's anyone's guess if it'd hold up amid renewed Gulf War-style jingoism. Still, it's made a start. Dialogue may well beat argument. But argument at least beats a yellow ribbon tied around your mouth.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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