Move over, Saddam

War coverage loses traction -- and makes way for Jessica Lynch, Laci Peterson and the male rescue fantasy.

Published April 24, 2003 9:51PM (EDT)

My long-awaited (or is it just much-delayed?) TV show -- the one that was about to debut on CNBC precisely when Operation Shock and Awe hit -- has been rescheduled for the end of April.

I plan to redecorate the set with an American flag that's bigger than everyone else's. That way maybe I won't get bumped again. I need to scrape up as many "core American values" as I can to have any hope of being allowed on TV at all in the current climate of punitive patriotism. My ace in the hole is I come from the same country as Tony Blair.

The Bush administration's ace in the hole, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, is the short attention span of the media. The Bushies knew all along that once Baghdad fell, networks and cable hosts, having had their season's climax, would be eager to move on to the next big thing, whatever it proves to be.

Network news anchors have started to surface in restaurants and dinner parties after a month of studio incarceration. They are bleary-eyed and ashen and fend off discussions about the way they covered Iraq by talking insistently about their golf games.

The Op-Ed cliché of the last three weeks -- "We will win the war, yes, but are we going to win the peace?" -- will stay a sonorous rhetorical question for the most part, except on C-Span and in obscure policy journals. Like Afghanistan, which won't get any airtime again until the nabbing of Osama offers a ratings spike, Iraq will slowly but surely go back to being "Over There," i.e., nowhere.

An old-style prewar pack frenzy hit when the Laci Peterson murder case returned to the American airwaves. Retired homicide detectives instantly supplanted retired generals as the electronic experts du jour. The discovery near a Berkeley, Calif., marina of the washed-up corpse of the long-missing, eight-months pregnant Modesto woman brought the old O.J. crowd out of storage. Former detective Mark Fuhrman, who discovered the bloody glove at the Simpson house in 1994, was wheeled out to "fill" as we waited for press conferences from the D.A.'s office to get up to speed on the DNA match and all the slimy clues that point to the guilt of the Peterson husband. "A slam dunk for the slammer" was the judiciously weighed pronouncement of one cable anchor, unimpeded as the press is here by effete British notions of a fair trial.

Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, the unsolved mystery of who killed Chandra Levy, and the biggest single American news story of the Iraq war -- the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch from her hospital ward in Nasiriya -- have provided the most obsessive narratives of American TV in the last couple of years. Why is cable news so addicted to missing girls and women? Is it because so much of the audience consists of boiling white males who feel stomped on by the economy and their wives, and girls in peril make them feel protective and virile? The rescue fantasy has never been more potent.

Saddam's palaces and "love shacks" were a big soft-news boon as the war lost traction. Porn videos, orgy-friendly yachts, bathrooms with gold taps, millions stashed in secret bunkers. Saddam's private world made for a wonderfully retro Desert of the Dolls -- Vegas before the Bellagio and Wolfgang Puck arrived. It's not that we expected the mustachioed one's taste in interior design to run to bleached Swedish wood, but this was the prop-house bad, Louis Quatorze look that Tony Soprano would favor if Carmela wasn't around to know better. Many of them weren't real palaces either. In Saddam's Iraq it seems even a "government building" that houses the Department of Motor Vehicles looks like an interior by Mad King Ludwig. TV tours of dictator schlock were a propaganda gift to the Bush administration still smarting a bit at losing half the history of civilization. So were the photo ops of cool Colin Farrell-like U.S. Marines lighting up in rococo palace chairs. The pictures were pinned up in offices in Manhattan, as nostalgically sexy reminders of life before the New York ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

Mayor Bloomberg's crusade against nicotine coincides with the sound theory currently being promoted by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria that democracy is often at odds with liberty. In Saddam's Iraq you couldn't speak out against the government but you could smoke any damn place you wanted to. In Republican America, you can speak out against the government -- you just have to be willing to risk a cancellation of your concert dates if you are the Dixie Chicks, or an anniversary screening of "Bull Durham" at the Baseball Hall of Fame if you are dissenting scum like its stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. But you can't smoke a cigarette with a roof over your head.

I wonder when Americans will get tired of being told what to do and think. By publicists. By bloggers. By the Pentagon. By talk show hosts. We are punch-drunk with other people's prescriptives and opinions. Our think tanks are overflowing. There are media mullahs everywhere you turn.

That's why the launch of Radar, a snarky new glossy that features a cover of a pissed-off looking Jennifer Lopez under the headline "Monsters Inc.," was oddly heartwarming. Inside, the magazine jauntily nails a gallery of celebrity trash without fear or favor.

The editor/founder of Radar, Maer Roshan, was my protean No. 2 in the last days of Talk. When it closed he decided that a simpler way to launch a magazine is to put the editorial budget on your credit card and hope something turns up. If you don't have a budget, get yourself an attitude.

Radar's defiant vitality is the first authentic stirring of spring on the magazine world's dead planet.

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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