On network news, war's a
and debate's a bore.
by Todd Gitlin
The American Prospect magazine,
November 4, 2002, p34
The pregame show is ticking toward the
opening kickoff. The networks are updating their SHOWDOWN and
COUNTDOWN logos, upgrading their drumrolls and trumpet snippets,
cueing their cruise missile videos and maps of hitherto obscure
regions. The color commentators and military consultants are sipping
their coffee in the green rooms, getting pumped. War is the spectacle
of spectacles, and for television news there's no business like
spectacle business. To air debate about whether war makes sense
is decidedly a lesser priority. The tedious stuff of policy chats
is for Sunday mornings, j when the political wonks get to come
out and play, not the evenings, when, despite ratings declines,
the pharmaceutical companies still pay top dollar to win the attention
of maximum eyeballs. If you seriously crave an argument that takes
more than five minutes, get you to C-SPAN.
Thus, it is not exactly surprising that
on Sept. 23, when A1 Gore spoke in San Francisco against the Bush
administration's gallop toward war with Iraq, all three network
evening news shows contented themselves with brief anchorman paraphrases.
None mentioned that Gore had, in the course of his speech at the
Commonwealth Club, declared opposition to "an emerging national
strategy that ... appears to be glorifying the notion of dominance."
And: "President Bush is presenting us with . . . one of the
most fateful decisions in our history-a decision to abandon what
we have thought was America's mission in the world-a world in
which nations are guided by a common ethic codified in the form
of international law." Ho hum, what a wooden guy.
Over on cable, MSNBC ran Gore's speech,
but neither CNN nor FOX did. (Perhaps the FOX branding division
is working up a new slogan: We Exclude, You Deride.) When it came
time for MSNBC to discuss the matter, Brian Williams led (as E.J.
Dionne Jr. pointed out on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sept. 28)
with: "Is it un-American to speak out against the Bush plan
to take on Iraq?" And then: "Today our friend Rush Limbaugh
told his radio listeners he almost stayed home from work not due
to any health reasons, but because he was so livid at the speech
given yesterday by former Vice President A1 Gore criticizing the
Bush administration's apparent march to war in Iraq." Liberal
At the networks, there's not even embarrassment
about this short-shrifting of dissent and argument in a sound-bite
culture. To network news chiefs, the notion that the news ought
to expedite debate is hopelessly do-goody-a relic of those musty
days when it was Congress that declared wars, when the Federal
Communications Commission uttered the phrase 'public interest,
convenience and necessity" with a straight face, and when
some journalists thought their job was to ready the republic for
its own momentous responsibilities when faced with constitutional
matters of life and death. Anyway, when were the do-gooders in
fashion? In the mid-1960s, following the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin
affair, Congress voted nearly unanimously for a blank-check, unlimited
war in Vietnam, and it took the television networks a year and
a half before they broadcast a significant debate on the subject
(the Fulbright hearings of February 1966). In 1990, when the administration
of George Bush Senior had already deployed more than 200,000 troops
around the Persian Gulf, it took a major split among Democrats
to stoke a television debate. In recent years, the interest in
genuine debate has become, if anything, feebler. The networks
of our day are chiefly in the business of telling stories to stir
up evanescing emotions; they barely bother with lip service to
When pressed, the networks will say that
they're in a visual business and that words don't play to their
strengths. This is, to put it mildly, naive. The year of Clinton-Lewinsky
was mainly a year of talk. (The shot of Monica in her beret on
the rope line was the exception that proved the rule.) What we
know from 24-7 coverage of O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana, John
F. Kennedy Jr., Chandra Levy, et al., is how easy it is to find
pictures to provide the wallpaper behind the words when you really
want to do so. Long video sequences of the waters off Martha's
Vineyard as boat crews seek the remains of young Kennedy's plane,
or the undergrowth of Rock Creek Park as the police thrash their
way through in search of Levy's body-and other such prolonged
exercises in no-news-mock the banner that adorns them: BREAKING
None of these observations means that
television fits snugly into a right-wing design. The claim that
the networks are currently straightforward propagandists for Bush
is, on its face, false. Skeptical snippets are in evidence. As
early as Sept. 26, the day Bush declared that Saddam Hussein's
Iraq "has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist
organizations," ABC's Martha Raddatz quoted "a senior
intelligence official" to the effect that, when it comes
to establishing Iraqi cooperation with al Qaeda, there is "no
smoking gun-not even an unfired gun." Sen. Ted Kennedy's
(D-Mass.) dissent later in the week did get excerpted on the network
news, as Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-W.Va.) did not. Kennedy is a newsmaker,
after all. Clips of antiwar demonstrators sporadically crop up
on air, though the Oct. 6 Central Park gathering, which numbered
some 15,000 by one newspaper account, got no network coverage.
But the main shortcoming of the evening
news is that it reduces controversy to a spitball match, with
occasional cutaways to the tacticians on the sidelines. Snippets
of disagreement pop up, then melt away. The evening's serving
of those snippets satisfies the standard interpretation of "balance."
And though balance is incontestably virtuous, it is long past
time for journalists to realize how a thoughtless insistence on
balance pads the news without illuminating it. If Sen. Airhead
says that the earth is round, no balancing statement is required.
To the contrary, an automatic "on the other hand" may
lend the appearance of legitimate controversy where it doesn't
As Carl von Clausewitz didn't say, war
news-like political news-is the continuation of sport by other
means. So far as the networks and most of the press are concerned,
the big questions of the evening are usually: "Who's ahead?"
"Who's behind?" "Who's got momentum?" Next
in priority come the color commentators, reducing all the players'
moves to coaches' tactics.
To the networks, the big questions are
rarely: "What's really going on here?" "What is
at stake in an Iraqi war?" "Who stands to gain what,
who stands to lose what?" We've heard precious little on
these scores. The weighing of factors laid out in the best print
journalism-for example, James Fallows' long piece in the November
issue of The Atlantic Monthly on what would be entailed by postwar
reconstruction in Iraq-has no equivalent on the nightly news,
once the commercials, coming attractions, recaps, health tips,
cute stories and such are stripped away. Thinking conspicuously
about such challenges would not help you chart a route upward
through the corporate mazes of Disney, General Electric or Viacom,
the proprietors of our major networks.
As things stand, the fact that some people
disagree over war, even strenuously disagree, is considered worth
noting in a how-about-that sort of way. The reasons dissenters
give for their disagreement get scant attention. In this vacuum,
a Bush-Daschle exchange of sound bites on whether the Senate is
treasonous (Bush's charge that the Senate, in rejecting his Homeland
Security bill, was trifling with national security itself) plays
like a medium-big story. It's a story, all right, but the vastly
bigger one, the one with decidedly more at stake, concerns the
debate over substance-a debate that is taking place in fits and
starts everywhere, among our allies, even within the confines
of many Americans' own skulls.
What good are dueling sound bites and
political scorecards? Americans already know they're of two or
maybe more minds about war with Iraq. Are we not entitled to hear
with some patience the cases that can be made for and against?
And when the debate over Iraq, in turn, stands for larger debates
concerning the contours of national-security policy, are these
larger questions not worth some sustained attention? When the
administration's "national security strategy" aims to
set forth the guiding purpose of a generation, is it not worth
taking seriously above and beyond voice-over snippets? Gore tried
to join that debate, and whatever you might think of his case,
you must concede that he took Bush at face value.
Even within the memory of most of today's
sentient viewers, we've been here before. By any fair appraisal,
the Gulf War was not network news' finest hour. Thrilled to the
point of distraction by the latest gadgets, they collaborated
in what writer Tom Engelhardt called a Pentagon-press co-production.
The Gulf War of 1991 did produce some significant footage-especially
of Kurdish refugees climbing over the northern mountains during
the aftermath-but most of the famous pictures were gravely misleading.
In truth, America's smart bombs were heavily outnumbered by America's
old-fashioned dumb bombs; the Patriot missiles, looking so cartoon-cute
in Pentagon-provided video clips, mainly missed their targets.
The networks did not look gift footage in the mouth. None of the
networks (or major newspapers) of that time joined in the lawsuit
pursued by Harper's, The Nation and other press litigants who
argued that Pentagon restrictions on coverage constituted First
Amendment violations. Only when the war was safely over did the
Washington bureau chiefs of the top news organizations write the
Pentagon in protest.
Is Showdown in the Gulf Il the network
idea of a cool sequel?
TODD GITLIN is a professor of journalism
and sociology at Columbia University. His most recent book is
Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms