If I were writing this column from behind an abandoned Jeep you’d find it a lot more compelling. Just bear with me and read it anyway.
I used to pick up the New York Times every day. Now, I just pull out the Arts section and leave the rest. This really annoys my friend Chris, partly because it’s usually his paper I’m stealing from, but mostly because he is seriously concerned with the way I disregard “the real news.”
“Who just reads the Arts section during a war? It’s like taking the bottom of the muffin and leaving the top,” he says. “Don’t be obstinate. Read the news.”
Is Chris right? It’s always when world politics are at their boiling point that I find myself swimming hardest against the media current: in the weeks after September 11th, whenever the terrorism alert rises from yellow to orange, and now during the war in Iraq. This month I’ve traded the nightly news for Entertainment Tonight because I’d rather hear about scandals in Hollywood than Halabja. My boyfriend and brother are frustrated with the fact that I know who is singing “Parsifal” at the Met but not who is giving press briefings from Qatar.
This is not because I lack the mental faculties to understand news stories more complex than the Hilton sisters’ involvement in L.A. Fashion Week or finding the truth behind Britney Spears’ breasts. It’s because I have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality when it comes to the gory details of some of the more tragic things going on in the world. Some people say that’s naive, negligent and irresponsible. (So is waging a war without U.N. approval.) I’ve been lectured that staying ignorant of problems doesn’t make them go away. But does staring at CNN all day, either?
It seems the networks are the latest members of the conspiracy trying to sell me on “real news.” Last Thursday, watching “Hot or Not?” meant viewing routine updates on the action in Iraq. Like my dad telling me to eat my vegetables or my dentist telling me to brush after every meal, even the television media is now wagging hypothetical fingers at my flippancy.
I can’t shake the feeling that war shouldn’t be a spectator sport — and it’s certainly not my American duty to watch it on TV. But, given the amount of coverage, am I being negligent for not watching the war?
What makes news important? Supposedly, the amount of coverage it gets. When something is really big it’s “all over the news!”
In that case, I’m a little confused by CNN. And not just by its eerily video game-esque interface, complete with streaming headlines and hot orange banners that read, “Emergency Update: Iraq,” “LIVE” and “Special Report” and linger for weeks on end.
Wednesday, I spent an hour and a half watching the Cable News Network, during which I learned four things:
1. Saddam Hussein (the bastard!) has a gilded toilet.
2. A farm on the Euphrates possesses 24 barrels of what MIGHT be a nerve agent. Or FERTILIZER.
3. Saddam Hussein (the bastard!!) may or may not be dead.
4. Tommy Franks (hooray!!!) has commented that he thinks the war is going well, but all other information is “sensitive.”
We gauge the gravity of a piece of news by the coverage it gets, which is why we’re all so easily scandalized by the unconfirmed war tidbits that comprise CNN’s daily news strategy. For instance: suspicious containers are found. CNN spends an hour having five different people ask the same five questions to military personnel with very little information on the matter. In the end the threat is a false alarm and all are relieved. The key is to keep the anchors talking fast and the segments short — our pulses elevate and we’re riveted to CNN until the cycle repeats. There’s an eternal sense of urgency. I feel like I’m watching Days of Our Lives, where an hour of drama leaves you right were you started off.
Meanwhile, curiously absent from the headlines are the following: the Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday; the Supreme Court has upheld a state’s right to outlaw cross burning; University of Texas just bought the Watergate papers; Mozart’s 9th is up for auction; 7 people were killed in a van crash in Pennsylvania; more people have been killed by the respiratory disease SARS than Americans have been killed in Iraq. But I guess none of this news is important.
On CNN, the troops are taking photos of Saddam’s toilet to “prove that they can go anywhere and do anything.” Christiane Amanpour is screaming over blaring sirens in Kuwait City, and as always, Wolf Blitzer Reports.
If it sounds like what I’m saying is that CNN is boring, that’s not the case. I’m saying CNN is yellower than your pee on a Sunday morning. I’m saying that though the war itself is highly important, multiple channels providing minute-to-minute updates is not. But the question remains — if there really is other news more important than what CNN reports — why aren’t they reporting it?
Ad revenue? No. It’s difficult to get people to advertise alongside war coverage, and networks often lose money to do it. What’s more, they often cite a selfless sense of civic duty for continuing coverage during hard times.
Here’s my answer: war coverage makes careers. If I had been writing this column from behind an overturned Jeep outside of Karbala, you’d find it more compelling. Walter Cronkite didn’t get famous for reporting on traffic accidents and neither will Judy Woodruff. The whole business of the war is, sadly, a love-fest for the networks — though not for the soldiers, or those unfortunate 11 journalists who gave their lives so that I could watch a regime crumble from the ideal vantage point, my couch. News networks adore playing the humble servants of America, driven to danger by a sense of civic duty — but just ask yourself who it really helps to see the mother of a fallen soldier driven to tears by a “concerned” and nosey interviewer.
Embedding journalists who turn their stories into thoughtful literature or powerful political commentary? That’s a brave and unique sacrifice.
Embedding journalists so that Americans can run their lives around a television screen? So we can dart from fear to fear, eagerly awaiting a stash of chemical weapons like a three-pointer at the buzzer?ÊThat’s just adding “Destroyed by America” and “Real World: Baghdad” to this season’s prime time lineup. Let’s get David E. Kelly to produce.
Liz Gunnison is an army of one.