columnist frank rich

Frank rich
Happy Talk News Covers a War
Published: July 18, 2004
UP to a point, it's fun to howl at Will Ferrell's priceless portrayal of Ron Burgundy, the fictional local TV news star at the center of ''Anchorman.''
The movie is set in the prehistoric era of the 1970's, when such infotainment inventions as Action News and Eyewitness News were still in their
infancy. With his big ego, big lapels, big ties, big hair and pea-sized brain, Ron is every newsman who's ever told us ''This is what's happening in
your world tonight!'' while remaining clueless about anything happening beyond his own teleprompter. Ron Burgundy has only one flaming
passion: to end up in the big time of network news.
You have to laugh -- until you realize that he and countless others like him have made just that leap in the three decades since. The local news
revolution nailed in this movie -- the dictum that the popularity of a news ''personality'' with the viewers, not the story, must always come first -has long since overrun most of both network and cable news. (The occasional holdout, typified by ''Nightline,'' must often fight for its life or be
subsidized at PBS.) No sooner do we rejoice at the demise of much of the 70's cultural detritus lampooned in ''Anchorman,'' from polyester
leisure suits to unembarrassed on-camera sexism, than we start wondering if TV news may be even more farcical now than it was then. But these
days the farce isn't so funny. The worst damage committed by Ron Burgundy at the movie's mythical News Center 4 of San Diego is to overplay
the pregnancy of a panda at the San Diego Zoo. Our news culture, and not just TV news, muffed the run-up to a war.
Watching Mr. Ferrell go on TV to promote ''Anchorman'' on the eve of its premiere, you had to notice just how plausibly his buffoonish,
supposedly anachronistic, fictional persona fits into our ''real'' news. He turned up in his Burgundy blazer on the ''Today'' show the same morning
The New York Post broke its front-page exclusive on John Kerry's choice of Dick Gephardt as his running mate. ''This is an excellent journalism
periodical,'' said Mr. Ferrell while thumbing through the offending tabloid before the crowd of ''Today'' show groupies in Rockefeller Center.
Thus we watched a fictional anchorman mocking a fictional story from a real newspaper on a real news program -- but was it so clear which was
which? Only a week earlier, ''Today'' had committed its own equivalent of The Post's gaffe by failing to broadcast the live story of Saddam
Hussein's court appearance in Baghdad. It stuck instead with an interview in which Robert Redford promoted a new movie in which he does not
play Bob Woodward.
When Mr. Ferrell turned up on ''The Daily Show'' the next night, Jon Stewart ribbed him for not basing his characterization of Ron Burgundy on
the fake anchorman Mr. Stewart himself plays on TV. But such is the vacuum now often left by the real news that Mr. Stewart's fake anchor is
increasingly drafted to do the job of a real one. One recent instance occurred after Dick Cheney appeared on CNBC on June 17. The CNBC
interviewer, Gloria Borger, asked the vice president about his public assertion that a connection between the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and
Saddam Hussein's government was ''pretty well confirmed.'' Not once but three times Mr. Cheney said that he ''absolutely'' had ''never said'' any
such thing. But Ms. Borger had been right. And it was left to Mr. Stewart, not her actual TV news colleagues, to come to her defense by
displaying the incontrovertible proof on ''The Daily Show'': a clip from ''Meet the Press'' in December 2001, in which the vice president flatly told
Tim Russert ''it's been pretty well confirmed'' that Atta met with ''a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service.''
Then again, maybe Mr. Cheney thought he could lie to Ms. Borger because he mistook CNBC, home to Dennis Miller, for a fake news outlet.
That isn't hard to do. In another stop on his ''Anchorman'' promotional tour, Mr. Ferrell crashed the set of that network's ''real'' business news
program, ''Power Lunch,'' where he spewed false headlines (''Kenneth Lay likes to wear makeup as a woman!'') and repeatedly kissed its normally
staid female anchor, Sue Herera, on the lips. Far from disowning this invasion of fiction into its journalism, CNBC turned the incident into a
constantly replayed promotional clip. The real anchor hardly seemed to mind, telling Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times that she enjoyed
showing viewers ''a different side of me.'' You can't get much more Burgundian than that.
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If each generation gets the Hollywood treatment of TV journalism that it deserves, then ''Anchorman,'' however hit-and-miss its humor, is our
''Network'' and ''Broadcast News.'' ''Network'' (1976) satirized a network news operation's willingness to offer any sensationalized spectacle, even
an anchor's televised suicide, to win the ratings war. ''Broadcast News'' (1987) showed us how slick looks and telegenic charm can trump
reporting talent and integrity as assets in the race to the top of TV news stardom. ''Anchorman'' grandfathers in the concerns of the other two but
shows how the desperation of would-be news stars to create likable on-screen personas (to be a ''newsonality,'' as The Washington Post critic
Tom Shales labeled one pioneer of the breed, Kelly Lange of KNBC in Los Angeles, in 1977) can mean forsaking journalism entirely.
''Anchorman'' gets its history right: this toxic element was first injected into the media bloodstream by innovations in local news at the dawn of
the 70's. One of its earliest sightings was in New York, where Al Primo, a news director at WABC, brought Eyewitness News in late 1968.
Looked at today at the Museum of Television and Radio, the early on-air promos for this then-novel brand of news are revelatory of what was to
come and even funnier than the parodies of them in ''Anchorman.''
In one, the young Geraldo Rivera brings the fellow members of his news ''team'' to a Puerto Rican wedding so that his ethnic ''friends,'' seemingly
played by actors, can get to know his WABC ''friends.'' The next thing you know, one of the anchors, the grim Roger Grimsby, is shedding his
sports jacket and hitting the dance floor with a sizzling Latina mama. The commercial's sell line: ''The Eyewitness News Team: The reason
people like them so much is that they like people so much.'' In 13 months, WABC doubled its ratings at 6 and 11, starting a nationwide stampede
by local stations to ditch their authority-figure anchors for happy-talking surrogate news ''families'' of their own.
The format officially crossed over into network news in 1973, when ABC hired Frank Magid, a consultant who specialized in these theatrics, to
develop the morning show, ''AM America.'' Built around a surrogate TV family and outfitted like a suburban home, it begat ''Good Morning
America'' two years later. The rest is metastasis. ''By the nineties, the tail was wagging the dog,'' wrote the critic Steven D. Stark. ''Now, local
news was setting the journalistic standard for the networks.''
Some of this influence is merely a matter of style: that faux familial intimacy is now visible on any TV news show, national or local, with more
than a single anchor. (Even the once Audio-Animatronic anchors of CNN's ''Headline News'' simulate husband-and-wife banter these days.) More
crucially, the premium placed on likability affects the content of the news. Since 9/11, this has meant wearing and hawking the flag (as long as it's
not draped on a coffin) -- even to the point of dressing the NBC on-screen peacock icon in the stars and stripes for weeks. It has also meant not
challenging a president as long as he's riding high in the polls.
In the now legendary White House press conference of March 6, 2003, not a single reporter, electronic or print, asked a tough question about
anything, including the president's repeated conflating of 9/11 with the impending war on Iraq (eight times in that appearance alone). To some
critics on the left, this Stepford Wives performance indicated a press corps full of conservatives, but I doubt it. This lock-step spectacle was at
least in part an exercise of the Burgundy principle of pandering: don't do anything that might make you less popular with your customers. In that
same month, Frank N. Magid Associates, still a major player in the news consulting business, released a survey telling its clients that war protests
came in dead last of all topics tested among 6,400 viewers nationwide. In other words, if you're covering the news based on what's happening as
opposed to what your viewers like, you're taking a commerical risk. Given that the ownership of local stations, networks and cable news alike is
now concentrated in far fewer hands than it was in the 1970's, such thinking quickly becomes orthodoxy in much of the American news business.
In the new documentary ''Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism,'' Robert Greenwald unearths some juicy documentation of Fox News
Channel's manipulations on behalf of its political agenda. But Fox isn't exactly pursuing a stealth strategy: anyone who can't figure out that it's in
the tank with the Republican party must be brain dead. It's more insidious when some of its more fair-and-balanced competitors blow-dry the
news not to serve an ideology but to tell the public what they think the public wants to hear. That's why the networks have been reluctant to show
casualties in Iraq. That's why we rarely see on American TV the candid video Michael Moore unveils in ''Fahrenheit 9/11,'' whether of the
president or of the grievously wounded, sometimes embittered soldiers who've returned from his mission in Iraq.
Even now, as the entire press, including The Times, copes with the reality that it wasn't skeptical enough about the administration's stated case for
war, the desire to gladhand the public can overcome news judgment, especially on television. Otherwise Americans wouldn't have found it such a
novelty when the Washington correspondent for RTE, the Irish network, took on Mr. Bush in a TV interview last month, challenging him
repeatedly about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and his claim that the war in Iraq has made us safer. The RTE reporter, Carole
Coleman, wasn't pretending to be any viewer's family or buddy or lover. ''I felt I did my job,'' she said when American journalists questioned her
about her audacity. Maybe so, but next to the Ron Burgundys in her profession, she seemed less like a visitor from a different country than an
alien from a distant planet.
So Much For 'The Front Page'
Published: November 2, 2003
So Much For 'The
The New York Tim
November 2, 200
Correction Appended
PITY, though not too deeply, the American press. Once the wisecracking truth seekers of ''The Front Page'' and the brave gumshoes of ''All the
President's Men,'' the fourth estate has fallen into such cultural disfavor that it risks being renamed the fifth estate, if not the sixth. Hollywood no
longer depicts reporters in ruthless pursuit of criminals, high and low. Now they are the criminals.
In the past month alone, television's reigning dramatic franchise, ''Law and Order,'' has resourcefully squeezed two shows out of the Jayson Blair
scandal. In one, an African-American reporter on ''The New York Sentinel'' (not to be confused with The New York Times because it's on East
43rd Street, not West) literally commits murder. In last Sunday's ''Law and Order: Criminal Intent,'' it's another Sentinel reporter who gets caught
up in murder, only this time it's his father who is the killer. The motive? To try to prevent the unmasking of his son as a plagiarist and fabricator
who wrote a story about oyster fishermen in Louisiana without leaving Brooklyn. How did this reporter get hired by The Sentinel in the first
place? He was the darling of a white, diversity-minded editor best known for his memoir about the black housekeeper of his childhood.
''You guys are rising to the top of America's most despised list,'' says Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) to a Sentinel hack. Hey, Lennie -we're already there! For further confirmation, there is ''Shattered Glass,'' this weekend's new movie about The New Republic's own Jayson Blair,
Stephen Glass, who wrote dozens of fictionalized stories before being exposed. Anyone searching for an altruistic reporter on a movie screen had
better run instead to ''Veronica Guerin,'' a Hollywood project that had to go to Ireland to find a journalist to root for, and posthumously at that.
But run fast. Though the movie's producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, has a shrewd eye for mass taste, this one proved dead on arrival at the box office.
These days a film about a truth-seeking newshound strikes audiences as more ridiculous than ''Gigli.''
''Shattered Glass,'' a study in smarminess in which even the honest journalists come across as pretentious brats, is unlikely to draw crowds either.
It's handsomely made and decently acted, especially by Hayden Christensen, who plays the creepy title character as if he were the smarter kid
brother of Anthony Perkins's obsequiously androgynous Norman Bates in ''Psycho.'' But the movie as a whole seems an irrelevancy. While the
press deserves some of the rancor coming its way, there's a gaping disconnect between a Hollywood critique like ''Shattered Glass'' and the news
media's more distressing ailments.
In a production note for the movie, its writer-director, Billy Ray, observes: ''When people can no longer believe what they read, their only choices
will be to either turn to television for their daily news or to stop seeking out news entirely. Either path, I think, is a very dangerous one for this
country.'' Where has Mr. Ray been since ''Network''? Most people have long ago turned to TV for their daily news, and many no longer believe
what they read. One of the most disturbing revelations of the Blair scandal was that few subjects of his bogus stories, Jessica Lynch's family
included, called The Times to complain about his fictions. They just assumed that reporters make stuff up.
The likes of a Glass and a Blair are true embarrassments to their peers. But the larger culture in which they thrived has done more longterm
damage to the press than these individual transgressors, however notorious. ''The standard for journalism used to be, 'What's the best obtainable
version of the truth?' '' Carl Bernstein said when I asked him how the profession has changed since the Watergate era. ''Now we're living in a
celebrity culture that no longer values truth more than hype. You have to go back to what was great about the movie of 'All the President's Men.'
It was not about the characters of Bob and me. There's not a woman in our lives in it; it's not about us at all. It's about the process of good
journalism: methodical, empirical, not very glamorous, hard-slogging reporting. Now journalism is as infected by the celebrity culture as every
other institution.''
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''Shattered Glass'' does show that its ambitious villain was less turned on by being a reporter than by being a Somebody worthy of a Pulitzer
(though apparently no one told him that Pulitzers are not awarded to magazine writers). But more often the movie doesn't puncture so much as
perpetuate the star-worshipping celebrity culture that attracts a Glass. ''Shattered Glass'' is as pompous about The New Republic as its
fictionalized New Republic staffers are, portraying the publication as the biggest thing to be handed down from on high since the Ten
Commandments. As one oft-repeated line of dialogue has it, The New Republic is ''the in-flight magazine of Air Force One,'' an inflated claim to
glamour that the magazine has never made for itself. The movie even opportunistically wraps itself in the tragic celebrity of the former New
Republic editor Michael Kelly, by invoking his death in the war in Iraq in the final credits. Mr. Kelly was covering the war for The Atlantic; in
the movie proper, his actual role in the Glass saga, while still at The New Republic in the 1990's, is substantially fictionalized and downsized.
The atmosphere that pervades high-end journalism now can be better seen in an incident that occurred while the movie was being completed than
in the movie itself. When the real Stephen Glass went on ''60 Minutes'' this year to push his own autobiographical novel about the scandal,
Charles Lane, the New Republic editor who published a number of his fictions before finally nailing him, criticized him for cashing in. ''I guess
that's the way America works these days,'' he said. He knew whereof he spoke. Days later Variety reported that Mr. Lane was working as a paid
consultant to ''Shattered Glass.''
Funnier than ''Shattered Glass,'' though just as indicative of how embedded the news media have become in the celebrity whirl, is ''K Street,'' the
Steven Soderbergh fiction-meets-reality series that really must be seen before HBO puts it out of its misery. It should be seen not because it
succeeds in its stated purpose, which is to dramatize the Washington ''process,'' but because with Andy Warhol-like candor it shows you a bit
more than you want to know in its snapshots of the capital's players.
Though the program's most substantive story line seems to be the charting of Mary Matalin's escalating display of fashion-victim couture,
Washington reporters cannot resist going on camera to play ''themselves.'' In one installment, a character dismisses Time as a magazine that
''nobody reads beyond the cover'' not long before an actual Time columnist, Joe Klein, shows up in a cameo. He embraces Ms. Matalin on the
street and offers her private p.r. advice -- a vignette that mainly lends credence to the show's insulting characterization of Time while
simultaneously reinforcing the public's impression that reporters have been co-opted by rubbing too many shoulders at the Palm.
Almost as weird was the ''K Street'' appearance by Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic, who then invited the show's executive
producer, George Clooney, to be a guest last Sunday on his own CNN show, ''Reliable Sources.'' (Both HBO and CNN are owned by Time
Warner.) In their conversation, Mr. Clooney complimented Mr. Kurtz's acting; then both men expressed their bemusement that Matt Drudge had
had the audacity to refuse to appear on ''K Street.'' I never thought I'd say this, but could Drudge be the last guy covering Washington who has
any sense of dignity?
The antics on ''K Street'' are innocuous, heaven knows, but the show's recruitment of reputable, even distinguished journalists as actors tells us
more about the news media than the case studies of the rookie malefactors in ''Law and Order'' and ''Shattered Glass.'' Young con men like Jayson
Blair and Stephen Glass are not the primary cause of the public's disenchantment with the news media. Their fictionalized stories, largely
features, did not cause any lasting damage to the world beyond that inflicted on the credibility of the publications for which they worked.
If anything, history may judge that a far bigger blot on The Times's reputation than Mr. Blair is Walter Duranty, who won a 1932 Pulitzer Prize as
a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union. His willful shilling for Stalin went uncorrected for years. (He is also a blot on the history of the
Pulitzer Board itself, which, in keeping with journalism's new haste to rectify even its old sins, is now weighing a belated revocation of Duranty's
prize.) By all accounts, Duranty, like Mr. Glass and Mr. Blair, was an ambitious self-promoter infatuated with the limelight. But his capital
journalistic crime, hiding the truth about a Ukraine famine that killed millions, offers a much darker picture of where this corruption can lead than
the relative misdemeanors of his successors.
The public, like Lennie Briscoe on ''Law and Order,'' gets the drift. It sees too many reporters showboating Geraldo-style on camera, whether on
''K Street'' or in the middle of hurricanes, catastrophic fires and wars. They see a famous columnist reveal the name of a C.I.A. agent and never
say he's sorry. They see news media less preoccupied with the news than with boosting their own status in the entertainment firmament that now
literally owns most of them.
In this vein, CNN's Christiane Amanpour recently criticized the wartime press, her own network included, for muzzling itself during the war in
Iraq and not asking ''enough questions, for instance, about weapons of mass destruction.'' She attributes this lapse in part to the need to compete
with the ostentatiously gung-ho Fox in a more important war -- for ratings. In the book ''Embedded,'' a new oral history of journalists in Iraq, the
Times correspondent John Burns talks about the ''corruption in our business'' when describing how fellow reporters cozied up to Saddam Hussein,
minimizing his regime's atrocities before the war much as Duranty did Stalin's. Next to these real-life scenarios, an exposé of journalistic sins like
''Shattered Glass'' seems like a valentine. No wonder The New Republic itself co-sponsored a celebrity screening last week to promote it in
(Page 3 of 3)
If anything, history may judge that a far bigger blot on The Times's reputation than Mr. Blair is Walter Duranty, who won a 1932 Pulitzer Prize as
a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union. His willful shilling for Stalin went uncorrected for years. (He is also a blot on the history of the
Pulitzer Board itself, which, in keeping with journalism's new haste to rectify even its old sins, is now weighing a belated revocation of Duranty's
prize.) By all accounts, Duranty, like Mr. Glass and Mr. Blair, was an ambitious self-promoter infatuated with the limelight. But his capital
journalistic crime, hiding the truth about a Ukraine famine that killed millions, offers a much darker picture of where this corruption can lead than
the relative misdemeanors of his successors.
The public, like Lennie Briscoe on ''Law and Order,'' gets the drift. It sees too many reporters showboating Geraldo-style on camera, whether on
''K Street'' or in the middle of hurricanes, catastrophic fires and wars. They see a famous columnist reveal the name of a C.I.A. agent and never
say he's sorry. They see news media less preoccupied with the news than with boosting their own status in the entertainment firmament that now
literally owns most of them.
In this vein, CNN's Christiane Amanpour recently criticized the wartime press, her own network included, for muzzling itself during the war in
Iraq and not asking ''enough questions, for instance, about weapons of mass destruction.'' She attributes this lapse in part to the need to compete
with the ostentatiously gung-ho Fox in a more important war -- for ratings. In the book ''Embedded,'' a new oral history of journalists in Iraq, the
Times correspondent John Burns talks about the ''corruption in our business'' when describing how fellow reporters cozied up to Saddam Hussein,
minimizing his regime's atrocities before the war much as Duranty did Stalin's. Next to these real-life scenarios, an exposé of journalistic sins like
''Shattered Glass'' seems like a valentine. No wonder The New Republic itself co-sponsored a celebrity screening last week to promote it in
Iraq Around The Clock
Published: March 30, 2003
AND so it turned out that ''Shock and Awe'' -- or ''shockinaw,'' in cable parlance -- didn't have legs. Less than a week after it pumped up the stock
market and gave the country a presentiment of a quick and tidy war, it was all but forgotten. Even before Time and Newsweek could hit the
stands with their cover displays of the fireworks, we were fixated on images we could not readily see: the Al Jazeera video of American troops
who had been butchered or taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. These pictures, declared contraband by the Pentagon after their initial showing on
CBS's ''Face the Nation'' last Sunday, contained one element that the antiseptic, depopulated Baghdad pyrotechnics could not deliver -- the human
face of people visibly mauled by war. For the first time we could smell blood, American blood, and while that was shocking, it was far from
For those of us trying to juggle these polar mood swings while watching the war on television, there are two conflicts raging -- the fight between
the antagonists themselves and the pitched battle between journalism and the imperatives of show business. The conflicts are intertwined, and the
second determines how we view the first. If we are to penetrate the fog of the real war, journalism must be the clear victor over the inherent need
of TV to impose its surefire entertainment formulas, its proven arsenal of slick storytelling and rousing characterization, on a reality that may not
be nearly so neat.
In this war, American TV news has an unusually tough job. It must not only compete with other TV storytellers with fierce agendas, starting with
Iraqi TV, but it must maneuver around the manipulations of an administration so television savvy it doesn't leave a single backdrop to chance.
Not for nothing was a designer who has worked for Disney, MGM, ''Good Morning America'' and the illusionist David Blaine hired to build Gen.
Tommy Franks a $250,000 set for the briefings in Qatar. The master of the Pentagon media operation, including the program embedding more
than 500 journalists among our troops, is Victoria Clarke, whose résumé features a stint directing public affairs for the National Cable Television
Association. In that job, according to The Wall Street Journal, she helped persuade the public that cable's ''terrible reputation for customer
service'' was unjustified. In other words, she's a p.r. genius.
We now know, of course, that the short-lived rush of ''Shock and Awe'' was contrived, a victory of TV's show business instincts over news. It was
the irresistible clichéd climax to the first 72 hours of TV war coverage, with its triumphal story line bereft of gore and starring enthusiastic
embedees in mufti cruising through the desert like the youthful participants in a second-tier Olympic sport. ''If you hired actors, you could not
have gotten better coverage,'' observed Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon spokesman, before the mood of the war and its coverage began to turn.
One person on the scene who didn't buy the initial story line was the correspondent Peter Arnett. He recognized a mindless TV rerun when he saw
it. ''It's déjà vu all over again, the idea that this would be a walkover, the idea that the people of Basra would throw flowers at the Marines,'' he
said from Baghdad when I spoke with him by phone last week. Unlike many of his peers, he had been there to see the early burst of optimism in
Persian Gulf War I, which he covered for CNN. ''This is going to be tough,'' he said just before it became tough. ''When I interviewed Tariq Aziz
two weeks ago -- it was not put on the network -- he said: 'You'll have a hard time tearing us down. We're ready to be martyrs.' Whatever you
think about Saddam Hussein, there is a sense of nationalism here. The Iraqis like American culture -- American movies and pop songs. But are
they really going to like American tanks?''
TV news can never be utterly innocent of showbiz, Mr. Arnett included. His exploits in the last war were fictionalized in last year's HBO movie
''Live From Baghdad,'' in which the attack-simulating special effects were, in his view, ''absolutely ridiculous.'' Commercial networks are not C-
Span. There is branding at stake, not to mention careers and ratings. Yes, it's important that we find out if Saddam actually has weapons of mass
destruction, but we also want to know if Mr. Arnett will make a comeback moonlighting for NBC and MSNBC, after having been let go by CNN
only to hitch his star to, of all unlikely outfits, ''National Geographic Explorer.'' NBC must also attend to the continuing cliffhanger of anchor
succession: will Brian Williams, dressing down for the desert, at last prove himself a worthy heir to Tom Brokaw? In the overnight stardom
sweepstakes, will MSNBC's Rob Morrison, until recently a local weekend anchor, or ABC's Richard Engel, a freelance radio reporter, emerge as
the new scud stud? When even weathermen on the Eyewitness News team are predicting rain in Kirkuk, it's clear everyone must get into the act.
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So far the biggest inside-TV drama has starred Peter Jennings. On the night the war began, he was AWOL by anchor standards, arriving at the
studio a half-hour later than his peers. For a while, while Baghdad burned on CBS and NBC, ''The Bachelor: Where Are They Now?'' continued
purring on ABC. ''The war has already claimed its first victim: ABC News,'' concluded The Washington Post's TV columnist, Lisa de Moraes,
soon after.
But it's exactly here that showbiz's standards of success and failure part from those of journalism. By the measure of its industry, ABC had
flopped, losing ratings and irritating its affiliates with its opening-night fiasco. But as a news operation ABC has succeeded since, by bucking the
initial consensus story line. After Donald Rumsfeld spoke in a post-''Shock and Awe'' press conference of ''the humanity'' of American weaponry
pinpointing noncivilian targets, Mr. Jennings said, ''No offense to the secretary, but at this moment we simply do not know whether that is the
case.'' Later the network would feature a John Donvan report from the liberated town of Safwan in which we learned that the citizens who had
famously cheered the tearing down of a massive portrait of Saddam the day before were now angry at Americans because of the lack of
humanitarian aid.
Inevitably The New York Post spanked ABC News, and Mr. Jennings in particular, for ''America-bashing, pessimism and antiwar agitation.''
Hardly. His real sin was to violate the unspoken rule that in the early stages of a war journalists should junk the tools of skepticism and irony on
camera. But as Michael J. Arlen, then television critic for The New Yorker, wrote in the mid-1960's while observing cheerleading coverage of the
first TV war, Vietnam, ''Trying to report a war without irony is a bit like trying to keep sex out of a discussion of the relations between men and
For those who want their war without irony or ambiguity or anything other than good news, there is The Post's TV sibling, Fox News. On Fox an
anchor can say that ''objectively speaking'' it is ''hard to believe things could go much more successfully.'' Last weekend another of its anchors
announced, ''This is extraordinary news -- the city of Basra under control!'' Which was extraordinary indeed, given that Basra was unsecured and
teetering into guerrilla warfare. On Fox, an anchor can (without irony) call Newt Gingrich ''an estimable scholar'' of military affairs and bring on
Donald Trump to declare, ''I think the market's going to go up like a rocket!''
We will always be winning on Fox, and Fox continues to win its ratings battle with CNN. We must pray that its happy talk becomes self-fulfilling
prophecy. But as I write on the run-up to the siege of Baghdad, P.O.W. families are telling a story so compelling that even the Oscars took a huge
ratings hit as viewers surfed for the latest. While media critics debate how much or little we should see of American and Iraqi corpses, the images
are bleeding into the media mix by satellite and Internet anyway. The TV story line has turned as dark as only yesterday it was light -- provoking
Fox's Fred Barnes to call his competitors ''weenies'' for dwelling on casualties. That's ludicrous, but as the pendulum swings, it's fair to ask: could
the new quagmire narrative be just as transitory and misleading as the discarded celebratory cakewalk of ''Shock and Awe''?
What is all but forgotten in every TV news narrative of this war so far, upbeat or down, is Al Qaeda and the event that is said to have necessitated
this war in the first place, the attack of Sept. 11. Instead it turns up tonight in the USA Network's scheduled premiere of ''Rudy,'' a movie in which
actors fictionalizing the former mayor's love life are blithely intercut with horrific actual news video of the collapse of the World Trade Center.
At the last minute one shot -- of a body falling from the north tower -- was edited from the film because of ''the potential distress that could be
caused.'' Perhaps the unedited version will turn up on Al Jazeera, but meanwhile it's distressing enough for some of us to see the shots that
remain, including those of office workers at the windows preparing to make the leap.
Apparently the makers of ''Rudy'' believe that those memories are now safely consigned to history. But in a week when military airplanes and
Black Hawk helicopters have resumed their air patrol of New York, it isn't easy to repress the sinking feeling that a cheesy soap opera may be
more on top of the news than the prime-time competition of ''War in Iraq.''
The War's Lost Weekend
Published: May 9, 2004
JUST when you've persuaded yourself yet again that this isn't Vietnam, you are hit by another acid flashback. Last weekend that
flashback was to 1969. It was in June 1969 that Life magazine ran its cover story ''The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One
Week's Toll,'' the acknowledged prototype for Ted Koppel's photographic roll-call of the American dead in Iraq on ''Nightline.'' It was
in November 1969 that a little-known reporter, Seymour Hersh, broke the story of the 1968 massacre at My Lai, the horrific scoop
that has now found its match 35 years later in Mr. Hersh's New Yorker revelation of a 53-page Army report detailing ''numerous
instances of 'sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses' at Abu Ghraib.'' No doubt some future edition of the Pentagon Papers will
explain just why we restored Saddam Hussein's hellhole to its original use, torture rooms included, even as we allowed Baghdad's
National Library, a repository of Mesopotamia's glorious pre-Baath history, to be looted and burned.
The Vietnam parallels are, as always, not quite exact. We didn't ''withdraw'' for another four years after 1969 and didn't flee Saigon for another
two years after that. We're on a faster track this time. News travels at a higher velocity now than it did then and saturates the culture more
completely; the stray, silent images from the TV set at the gym or the p.c. on someone else's desk lodge in our brains even when we are trying to
tune them out. Last weekend, the first anniversary of the end of the war's ''major combat operations,'' was a Perfect Storm of such inescapable
images. The dense 48-hour cloud of bad news marked the beginning of the real, involuntary end of America's major combat operations in Iraq,
come hell or June 30.
The first sign was the uproar over ''Nightline'' from the war's cheerleaders. You have to wonder: if this country is so firm in its support of this
war, by what logic would photographs of its selfless soldiers, either their faces or their flag-draped coffins, undermine public opinion? The
practical effect of all the clamor was only to increase hunger for ''Nightline'' -- its ratings went up as much as 30 percent -- and ensure that the
fallen's faces would be seen on many more channels as well. Those faces then bled into the pictures from Abu Ghraib, which, after their original
display on ''60 Minutes II,'' metastasized by the hour on other networks and Web sites: graphic intimations of rape, with Americans cast as the
rapists and Iraqis as the victims, that needed no commentary to be understood in any culture. (The word ''reprimand'' -- the punishment we first
doled out for these crimes -- may lose something in translation to the Arabic, however.)
Then there were the pictures of marines retreating from Fallujah and of that city's citizens dancing in the streets to celebrate their victory over the
American liberators they were supposed to be welcoming with flowers. And perhaps most bizarre of all, there was the image that negated the
war's one unambiguous accomplishment, the toppling of Saddam. Now, less than 13 months after that victory, we could see a man in Republican
Guard gear take command in Fallujah. He could have been one of those Saddam doubles we kept hearing about before ''Shock and Awe.'' But
instead of toppling this Saddam stand-in we were resurrecting him and returning him to power.
Through a cruel accident of timing, each of these images was in turn cross-cut with a retread of a golden oldie: President Bush standing under the
''Mission Accomplished'' banner of a year ago. ''I wish the banner was not up there,'' Karl Rove had told a newspaper editorial board in the swing
state of Ohio in mid-April. Not ''I wish that we had planned for the dangers of post-Saddam Iraq before recklessly throwing underprepared and
underprotected Americans into harm's way.'' No, Mr. Rove has his eye on what's most important: better political image management through
better set design. In prewar America, presidential backdrops reading ''Strengthening Medicare'' and ''Strengthening Our Economy'' had worked
just fine. If only that one on the U.S.S. Lincoln had said ''Strengthening Iraq,'' everything would be hunky-dory now.
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Not having any positive pictures of its own to counter last weekend's ugly ones, the administration tried gamely to alter the images' meaning
through words instead. Little could be done to neutralize the mortal calculus of ''Nightline'' -- though Paul Wolfowitz trivialized the whole idea of
a casualty count by publicly underestimating the actual death toll by some 200. But back in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt went for broke. ''This
is not a withdrawal, it's not a retreat,'' he said, even as news video showed an American tank literally going in reverse while pulling away from
Fallujah. To counter the image of the Saddam clone, the Pentagon initially told reporters that he was not a member of the Republican Guard, even
as we saw him strutting about in the familiar olive-green uniform and beret. (Later the truth emerged, and the Saddam clone in question, Jasim
Muhammad Saleh, was yanked off-camera.)
As for Abu Ghraib, a State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said ''I'm not too concerned'' about the fallout of these snapshots on
American credibility in the Arab world. Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took to three Sunday morning talk shows to say
that only ''a handful'' of Americans had engaged in such heinous activities -- even though that low estimate was contradicted by the two-monthold internal Army report uncovered by Mr. Hersh and available to everyone in the world, it seemed, except the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and
his civilian counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld.
The general blamed the public's grim interpretation of the news from Iraq on ''inaccurate reporting'' that he found nearly everywhere, from CNN
to ''the morning papers.'' He and the administration no doubt prefer the hard-hitting journalism over at Fox. ''I end up spending a lot of time
watching Fox News,'' Dick Cheney explained last month, ''because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally
involved in, than many of the other outlets.''
It was instructive, then, to see how Fox covered the images of last weekend -- in part by disparaging the idea of showing them at all. Fox's (if not
America's) most self-infatuated newsman, the host of ''The O'Reilly Factor,'' worried on air that ''Nightline'' might undermine morale if it tried to
''exploit casualties in a time of war.'' He somehow forgot that just five nights earlier he had used his own show to exploit a casualty, the N.F.L.
player Pat Tillman -- a segment, Mr. O'Reilly confided with delight, ''very highly rated by premium members.'' (Lesson to families
who lose sons and daughters in Iraq: if you want them to be exploited on ''The Factor,'' let alone applauded by Web site ''premium members'' who
pay its host $49.95 a year, be sure they become celebrities before they enlist.)
Soon Mr. O'Reilly was announcing that he was ''not going to use the pictures'' of Abu Ghraib either and suggested that ''60 Minutes II'' should
have followed his example. Lest anyone be tempted to take a peek by switching channels, a former Army interrogation instructor, Tony
Robinson, showed up on another Fox show, ''Hannity & Colmes,'' to assert that the prison photos did not show torture. ''Frat hazing is worse than
this,'' the self-styled expert said.
Perhaps no one exemplified the principles of Cheney-favored journalism more eloquently than the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the large station
owner (and Republican contributor) that refused to broadcast ''Nightline'' on its ABC outlets. A spokesman, Mark Hyman, explained: ''Someone
who died 13 months ago -- why is that news?'' Been there, done that, I guess.
The administration has been coddled by this kind of coverage since 9/11, until fairly recently, and it didn't all come from Fox and Sinclair. Last
Sunday, Michael Getler, the ombudsman at The Washington Post, wrote that ''almost everything we were told before the war, other than that
Saddam Hussein is bad, has turned out, so far, not to be the case: the weapons of mass destruction, the imagery of nuclear mushroom clouds, the
links between al Qaeda and Hussein, the welcome, the resistance, the costs, the numbers of troops needed.'' He was arguing that, as good as much
of the war reportage has been, ''it is prewar coverage that counts the most.''
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If that coverage had been sharper, and more skeptical of administration propaganda, more of the fictions that sent us to war would have been
punctured before we signed on. Perhaps a majority of the country would not have been conned into accepting as fact (as it still does, according to
an April poll) that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. As fate would have it, last weekend
was also when C-Span broadcast live coverage of the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, many of whose attendees were
responsible for the journalistic shortfall described by Mr. Getler. The revelers joined the president in pausing to mourn Michael Kelly and David
Bloom, two of the 25 journalists killed so far in the line of duty in Iraq. Then it was back to Washington at its merriest, as the assembled
journalists could return to drooling over such fading or faded stars as Ben Affleck, Morgan Fairchild and Wayne Newton.
That was an image, too -- as ludicrous in its way as those second-rung Playboy bunnies turning up in ''Apocalypse Now'' -- but not as powerful as
those from the front lines. Mr. Koppel's salute to the fallen was heartbreaking, no matter what you think about the war; one young soldier could
be seen cradling his infant child, others were still wearing the cap and gown of high school and college graduations. The Abu Ghraib images
shocked us into remembering that real obscenity is distinct from the revelation of Janet Jackson's right breast, the cynical obsession of some of
the Washington politicians also seen partying at the correspondents' dinner.
As we know from ''Mission Accomplished'' and Colin Powell's aerial reconnaissance shots displayed as evidence to the United Nations, pictures
can be made to lie -- easily. But over time credible pictures, because they have a true story to tell, can trump the phonies. Try as politicians might
to alter their meaning with spin, eventually there comes a point when the old Marx Brothers gag comes into play: ''Who are you going to believe - me or your own eyes?'' Last weekend was a time when many, if not most, of us had little choice but to believe our own eyes.
The Joy of Gay Marriage
Published: February 29, 2004
Correction Appended
HERE'S the denouement of the epic drama over gay marriage. It's going to happen, it's going to happen within a generation, and it's going to
happen even though George W. Bush teed off his re-election campaign this week by calling for a constitutional amendment to outlaw it. As the
country has now had weeks to digest, it has already happened in bulk in San Francisco, where images of couples waiting all night in the rain to be
wed finally wiped Janet Jackson off our TV screens. The first of those couples, Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, were celebrating a
partnership of 51 years. Take that, heterosexual marriage! The most famous practitioner of mixed-sex nuptials this year, Britney Spears, partook
of a Vegas marriage that clocked in at 55 hours.
Whatever their short-term legal fate, the San Francisco weddings mark a new high-water mark in one of the most fast-paced cultural tsunamis
America has seen. As Evan Wolfson, the civil rights lawyer who founded Freedom to Marry, says, ''An act as unremarkable as getting a wedding
license'' has been transformed by the people embracing it, much as the unremarkable act of sitting at a Formica lunch counter was transformed by
an act of civil disobedience at a Woolworth's in North Carolina 44 years ago this month. Gavin Newsom, the heterosexual, Irish Catholic mayor
of San Francisco, described his proactive strategy for advancing same-sex marriage to Time magazine: ''Put a human face on it. Let's not talk
about it in theory. Give me a story. Give me lives.'' And so now there have been thousands of gay wedding stories, many of them with the
couples' parents and children in the supporting cast, at the same City Hall where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio famously got hitched to no
good end a half-century ago.
Like other provocative steps in this civil rights movement or the black civil rights movement before it, the San Francisco weddings may cause a
morning-after backlash, though perhaps not as stormy as the one President Bush is courting. The big picture remains the same: this is a revolution
churning unstoppably through the culture, where it took root long before the law and politicians, especially those in Washington, started to catch
up. In 1986, for instance, the Supreme Court upheld antisodomy laws. But even then Hollywood was advancing the story: Rock Hudson,
heterosexual heartthrob No. 1 of the 1950's, had died of AIDS just months earlier, and his homosexuality was a revelation in a country where,
polls showed, only 24 percent said they knew anyone who was gay.
A few months after Hudson's death, when I was a drama critic covering the rise of AIDS casualties and AIDS plays in the New York theater,
Esquire magazine asked me to write an essay contemplating the impact of gay culture on heterosexual American culture. I knew little about it
beyond the theater. But as I researched the story, I discovered that the queer eye was everywhere in my supposedly unambiguously straight
world, from the Calvin Klein billboards in Times Square to television's ''Dynasty.'' Much of this influence was as unacknowledged, or
unrecognized, by heterosexuals, as gay people themselves usually were.
It was an education, and some less compressed version of that education has taken place for many Americans in the years since -- through reallife stories like those Mayor Newsom talks about as well as the likes of ''Will & Grace.'' Last year, the Supreme Court finally struck down the
antisodomy laws it had upheld just 17 years earlier, and now polls show that more than half of the country knows firsthand someone who is gay.
It's hard to hate people you know or discriminate against them by denying them the many civic benefits of marriage. Though all polls show that
only a minority are for gay marriage, that minority is still substantially larger than the one that approved of interracial marriage in 1968, a year
after the Supreme Court made such marriages legal.
More revealingly, the polls find a clear majority of those ages 18 to 29 in favor of same-sex marriage. In America, generational turnover is
destiny -- especially when it's plugged into capitalism. In a country where only half the families are intact heterosexual marriages with children,
those that break the old mold are a huge developing market -- for weddings, tourism, housing and anything else American ingenuity can conjure
up for consumption.
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The AIDS epidemic, in retrospect, made same-sex marriage inevitable. Americans watched as gay men were turned away at their partners'
hospital rooms and denied basic rights granted to heterosexual couples coping with a spouse's terminal illness and death. As the gay civil rights
movement gained a life-and-death urgency, the public started to come around, and it has been coming around ever since, at an accelerating rate.
As recently as 1993, the year Tom Hanks did his Oscar turn as an AIDS victim in ''Philadelphia,'' fewer than a dozen Fortune 500 companies
offered domestic partners health benefits and even a city as relatively progressive as Atlanta erupted over extending them to its employees. That
now seems a century, not a decade, ago: today even Wal-Mart is among the nearly 200 such companies offering these benefits, and even a
conservative city like Cincinnati is contemplating the repeal of antigay legislation, passed in 1993, that may be hindering its ability to recruit
But for all these changes, hundreds of federal marriage perks, from a survivor's right to a spouse's Social Security benefits to the sponsorship of
foreign partners, are still denied to gay couples, including those who are granted separate-and-not-equal civil unions by local governments. That's
why marriage, whatever the word's separate meaning as a spiritual or religious rite, will remain a pressing constitutional issue in a country
founded on equality. If marriage laws were set in stone, after all, same-race marriage would still be the only legal kind.
As the fulcrum of a culture war in a presidential campaign year, same-sex marriage now promises to explode with a vengeance as yet absent in
San Francisco. America would be the loser, and so might either political party. If Mr. Bush really believed that supporting a constitutional
amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage was a political slam-dunk, ''he would have endorsed it right after the Massachusetts court decision,'' says
Patrick Guerriero, the head of the Log Cabin Republicans.
What caused the delay? In part, it's that polls show most Americans balk at such an amendment. But now that the president's own polls are down,
he's rolled the dice. He's hoping to motivate his base even if that means ''embracing the radical right's effort to write graffiti into the Constitution,''
as Mr. Guerriero puts it. No one seems to know where Mary Cheney is, but other gay Republicans in the administration, in the Bush-Cheney
campaign and in the armed services in Iraq have been driven to ''soul searching'' by the president's move, Mr. Guerriero says. They may have
their own stories to tell. The day when a hypocritical segregationist like Strom Thurmond could demagogue one policy on marriage in public and
behave quite differently in private is gone with the wind.
The president is so stymied by the very subject of same-sex relationships of any kind that he can't even say the words ''gay'' or ''homosexual'' in
public. John Kerry, whose stance on gay marriage is no more coherent than his position on the war in Iraq, dodged a reporter's question about
Mayor Newsom's weddings this week with the preposterous response, ''I haven't really kept up with exactly what he is doing.'' They both wish
gay marriage would just go away.
It won't. And so the vacuum will be enthusiastically filled by Defenders of Marriage eager to foment the bloodiest culture war possible. They are
gladly donning the roles played by Lester Maddox and George Wallace in the civil rights era, even at the price of turning women like Phyllis
Lyon and Del Martin into the new century's incarnation of Rosa Parks. Though it's easy to laugh at Bill O'Reilly's threat to personally make a
citizen's arrest of Mayor Newsom, a scene that would be less redolent of ''America's Most Wanted'' than ''America's Funniest Home Videos,'' the
same cannot be said of the cynical provocations of California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a purported supporter of gay rights. Last
Sunday, with no evidence whatsoever, he went on network television to tell Tim Russert that San Francisco may erupt in riots. ''The next thing we
know there's injured or there's dead people,'' he added, as if to predict a re-enactment of the assassinations of a gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk,
and the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, in 1978.
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The rhetoric of die-hard segregationists is back as well, complete with its warnings of how untraditional marriages can beget polygamy and
bestiality. In a strategy now adopted by President Bush, the Defenders of Marriage repeatedly complain of how ''activist judges'' are overruling
the will of the people -- and then go in search of activist judges of their own to quash Mayor Newsom, an official elected by the people. In three
states, it is the legislature, not the judiciary, that is trying to speed same-sex marriage anyway.
The full-time Defenders of Marriage also like to pretend that they are ''tolerant'' of their misguided gay brethren, but their priorities give them
away. You'd think they'd be most concerned about divorce, which ends half of all American marriages, or spousal abuse, but a study by the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force last fall discovered that 334 documents on the American Family Association's Web site contained the word
''homosexual'' while ''divorce'' and ''domestic violence'' together merited fewer than 70 mentions. Such is the bent of the Family Research Council
and the Traditional Values Coalition that they lobbied the Justice Department to deny 9/11 compensation to the domestic partners of those killed
in the terrorists' attack, lest it further ''the gay agenda at the expense of marriage and family.''
By the time the conventions roll around this summer, gay marriages are likely to be a civic fact in Boston, the site of the Democrats' gathering.
Mr. Bush is coming into New York, not only a center of gay population and activism but the home of three gay-friendly Republican hosts,
George Pataki, Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani, who can only lose if there's any replay inside the hall of the gay-baiting Houston
convention of '92. If a convention like that could damage the first President Bush's re-election chances back then, imagine what a hot culture war
in the much-changed America of 2004 might mean for the second President Bush, in the midst of a real war. It sounds like Chicago '68 to me.
Except, of course, that the current Mayor Daley has endorsed same-sex marriage.
We'll Win This War -- On '24'
Published: January 9, 2005
DOES anyone still remember the war on terror? Tonight it is lobbed back onto the TV screen like a hand grenade with the new season of ''24,''
Fox's all-cliffhangers, all-the-time series about Jack Bauer, the relentless American intelligence agent played by Kiefer Sutherland. You will find
no plot surprises divulged here. But tune in, and you'll return, not necessarily nostalgically, to the do-or-die post-9/11 battle that has been all but
forgotten as we remain trapped in its nominally connected sequel, the war against Saddam Hussein.
This show is having none of President Bush's notion that Iraq is ''the central front in the war on terror.'' In ''24,'' the central front of that war is the
American home front, not Mosul. ''We weren't thinking of the war in Iraq when we came up with this story,'' said Joel Surnow, the show's cocreator, when I spoke with him last week. On ''24,'' they're thinking about Islamic terrorism instead of Baathist insurgents, about homeland
security instead of the prospects for an election in the Sunni triangle.
In the America of ''24,'' as in the real one, government bureaucrats are busier fighting each other than Al Qaeda. Trains are unprotected from
terrorists, and so is the Internet. The handsome Turkish family next door in sun-dappled Southern California is a sleeper cell the F.B.I. didn't find.
The secretary of defense must not only contend with terrorists but also with a glib antiwar son who, in his view, has succumbed to ''sixth-grade
Michael Moore logic.'' Dad, amusingly enough, is played by William Devane, the actor who first became famous 30 years ago impersonating
John F. Kennedy in a television drama (''The Missiles of October'') about a colder war where the battle lines were clearly drawn.
In its own way, ''24'' is as provocative as a Moore manifesto. It shows but does not moralize about the use of abuse and torture by Americans
interrogating terrorists; the results cut both ways in the four hours of the season I've seen, and there's a hint, as vibrant as an orange jumpsuit, that
American criminality at Guantánamo may guarantee ugly payback in the O.C. as well as in the Middle East. The Council on American-Islamic
Relations, meanwhile, has already protested this season's portrayal of Muslims. Though Mr. Surnow says that later episodes will include positive
Muslim characters, he makes no apologies for focusing on the bad guys (and one very bad woman, played by the Iranian actress Shohreh
Aghdashloo, of ''The House of Sand and Fog''). He regrets that he ''pulled punches'' a couple of seasons back by using generic terrorists of murky
provenance with indefinable accents. ''This year we deal with it,'' he says. ''This is what we fear -- Islamic terrorism. This is what we are fighting.''
Richard Clarke, the former American counterterrorism chief who once helped lead that fight, has yet to catch up with ''24.'' But in coincidental
tandem with its premiere, he is giving it some competition: for the cover of the January-February issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he has written
his own distressing piece of fiction about the war he feels has been sabotaged if not lost by mismanagement, complacency and the squandering of
resources in Iraq.
Titled ''Ten Years Later,'' it takes the form of a 10th-anniversary 9/11 lecture given by Professor Roger McBride at the Kennedy School of
Government. This professor, like Jack in ''24,'' does not buy into what Jonathan Raban, writing in The New York Review of Books, calls ''the
pretense of fighting terrorists abroad to prevent them from attacking us at home.'' As McBride looks back at our decade from the vantage point of
2011, he finds that we have prevented little by fighting in Iraq. He sees an America that has endured horrors at home strikingly similar to those on
Fox's show: assaults on rail transportation, a computer virus that wipes out the nation's cyber infrastructure, the rise of ''Al Qaeda of North
America'' and the panicky instigation of new Patriot Acts that remake America into Philip Roth's nightmare of a fascistic Lindbergh presidency.
This fictional lecture is heavily footnoted with actual sources and hard, detailed information about our current security shortfalls. The reader
learns that Mr. Clarke is not indulging in idle fantasy when he speculates that the next terrorist assault on American economic might is less likely
to involve airplanes and financial district skyscrapers than backpacks and Winnebagos wreaking havoc at the Mouseworld theme park in Florida,
the Lion's Grand casino in Las Vegas and the Mall of the States in Minnesota. But why would Mr. Clarke choose fiction as a vehicle for this dark,
fact-based scenario?
''In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the only time I was really effective in getting senior officers to pay attention was when I had
tabletop war games,'' he said in an interview. ''That did more than any briefing paper I might write.'' Few critics of the American fight against
terrorism, both before and since 9/11, have had more of a public forum than Mr. Clarke, who gave dramatic, widely televised testimony before
the 9/11 commission and published one of 2004's biggest sellers, ''Against All Enemies.'' Yet he still feels, not without reason, that his message
has failed to land. ''On 9/11 my staff was consoling me,'' he says. ''They said, 'You didn't stop it but at least everything you wanted to get done
will get done. It will just happen.' For a while it did. Then it petered out. It's sad. We had the window of opportunity and just didn't know how to
use it.''
His next attempt to make himself heard will also be fiction: a novel steeped in national security and foreign policy, scheduled to be published in
October. Though it may not have sex scenes -- ''it's one of those things I'm debating'' -- Mr. Clarke sees popular fiction, which can outsell
nonfiction by several multiples, as a way of reaching a still larger audience. He has also contributed some ideas to the script of ''Dirty War,'' an
HBO-BBC docudrama (to be shown Jan. 24 on HBO) that ''24''-style portrays a self-satisfied British government as woefully ill-equipped to
either prevent or respond to Islamic terrorists' detonation of a dirty bomb in central London.
''Pop culture is frequently ahead of where the news media are on these things,'' he says. And ahead of the government as well. Condoleezza Rice
famously said in 2002, ''I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade
Center.'' As we've since learned from several investigations, threat reports circulated within the American government predicted such airplane
scenarios repeatedly before 9/11; one 1998 threat specifically targeted the twin towers. But fiction had been there earlier still. Mr. Clarke, like
many others, cites the prescience of Tom Clancy's 1994 novel, ''Debt of Honor,'' in which a Boeing 747 is crashed into the Capitol by a Japanese
airman during a joint session of Congress, and the 1996 movie ''Executive Decision,'' in which Kurt Russell battles Islamic terrorists who have
seized control of another 747 so they can detonate a biological weapon in Washington.
Mr. Clarke says that friends who have read early copies of his Atlantic piece are e-mailing him to say, ''See, it's already happening.'' But in his
view we've hardly seen anything yet. ''Madrid -- 3/11 -- could happen today in any of our major cities,'' he says. ''There was security for the trains
going from Washington to New York for the Republican National Convention, but what about the rest of the year?'' Private security, he adds, is
just as porous as government security: ''When I go to an office building, I routinely sign in as Benjamin Franklin and no one ever objects. I show
them my driver's license, which doesn't say 'Benjamin Franklin,' and they don't care.''
Care must begin at the top, of course. In retrospect, Bernie Kerik's short-lived nomination as the new homeland security czar -- ''mind-blowing,''
as Mr. Clarke puts it -- shows just how little concern there is. If homeland security were a top priority for the White House, someone would have
discovered that the man selected to run the most sprawling new federal bureaucracy since the Defense Department in 1947 could not even
manage his own personal finances, let alone his sex life. Were homeland security still a top priority for the country, the Kerik implosion might
have whipped up some of the public outcry once sparked by the whistle-blowing F.B.I. agent Coleen Rowley (who quietly retired last month).
But like duct tape and color-coded terror alerts before it, the Kerik nomination instead turned instantly into a Leno-Letterman gag that allowed us
to dispel any lingering 9/11 fears with laughter.
Lost amid all those yuks was the full weight of last month's farewell confession of defeat by Tommy Thompson, the outgoing secretary of health
and human services: ''I, for the life of me, cannot understand why terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to
do.'' He was followed out the administration's door in December by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin (an
actual official, despite his semifictional name), a Bush appointee whose history with the president goes back to the governor's office in Texas.
Asked by Mimi Hall of USA Today what was wrong with his department, he replied, ''It's difficult to figure out where to start,'' then described a
dysfunctional agency that has failed to plug most holes in the nation's security net but has succeeded triumphantly in wasting taxpayers' money on
bonuses and perks. His specific complaints overlap and confirm those in Mr. Clarke's ''fiction'' for The Atlantic.
But Mr. Ervin's final shots were barely noticed in the merriment that followed revelations of Mr. Kerik's ground zero love nest. He may now
elucidate them further in a planned book, but you have to wonder if even best-selling nonfiction books written with the you-are-there zing of
popular fiction -- a description that fits both ''Against All Enemies'' and ''The 9/11 Commission Report'' -- can wake up a country that has been so
successfully distracted from the war initially declared after 9/11. As Mr. Clarke's Professor McBride says, ''The several years without an attack on
U.S. soil lulled some Americans into thinking that the war on terror was taking place only overseas.'' According to a roundup by the political
newsletter Hotline, when some 20 Washington pundits made year-end talk-show predictions for the year to come, only one (Evan Thomas of
Newsweek) foresaw the possibility of a domestic terrorist attack.
By common consent, 2004 was the year that Jon Stewart's fake news became more reliable for many viewers than real news. As 2005 begins, we
must confront the prospect that a fictional TV action hero is more engaged with the war on terror than those in Washington who actually have his
3 Hours, 4 Nights, 1 Fear
Published: July 25, 2004
YOU can't blame the broadcast networks for cutting their convention coverage to a fig-leaf minimum of just three hours of prime time spread
over four nights. That's what both parties deserve for having steadily sanded down their quadrennial celebrations into infomercials with all the
spark and spontaneity of the televised Yule Log. But though few want to say so aloud, there is one potential last-minute ingredient that would
instantly bring back gavel-to-gavel coverage on the Big Three: a terrorist attack. That fearful possibility is both conventions' sole claim to
It is also the subtext of this entire presidential campaign. A late-June USA Today/CNN poll shows that 55 percent of Americans feel less safe
because of the war in Iraq -- a figure that has spiked 22 points in merely six months. Fear rules. Fear rocks. Fear of terrorism is George W. Bush's
only second-term platform to date (unless you count fear of same-sex marriage). Let John F. Kerry roll out John Edwards as his running mate,
and Tom Ridge rushes to grab back the TV spotlight by predicting that Al Qaeda will ''disrupt our democratic process.'' Never mind that he had
no ''precise knowledge'' of such an attack or any plans to raise his color-coded threat level; his real mission, to wield fear as a weapon of mass
distraction, had been accomplished. Odds are that the next John Ashcroft doomsday press conference will be timed to coincide with the run-up to
Mr. Kerry's acceptance speech on Thursday night.
In the fear game, the Democrats are the visiting team, playing at a serious disadvantage. Out of power, they can't suit up officials at will to go on
camera to scare us. Mr. Kerry is reduced instead to incessantly repeating the word ''strength'' and promising to put ''a national coordinator for
nuclear terrorism'' in the cabinet. That will hardly cut it against these ingenious opponents. Every time a Bush administration official tells us the
apocalypse is coming, the president himself brags that he has made America ''safer.'' The message is in the bad news-good news contradiction: the
less safe we feel, the more likely we'll play it safe on Election Day by sticking with the happy face we know.
Yet the Democrats still can't be counted out. They do have one card to play that the Republicans do not: pop culture. With a vengeance that
recalls the Clinton-hating echo chamber when it was fantasizing about the ''murder'' of Vincent Foster, big guns in the culture industry are rousing
themselves into a war-room frenzy of anti-Bush hysteria that goes well beyond fielding an inept talk-radio network and producing documentaries
for the base at Their method for countering the Bush-Cheney monopolization of fear is to turn the administration into an object of
fear in its own right. It can be seen at full throttle in Jonathan Demme's remake of the classic cold war thriller, ''The Manchurian Candidate,''
which opens nationally on Friday, the morning after the Democratic convention ends. This movie could pass for the de facto fifth day of the
convention itself.
I cannot recall when Hollywood last released a big-budget mainstream feature film as partisan as this one at the height of a presidential campaign.
That it has slipped into action largely under the media's radar, as discreetly as the sleeper agents in its plot, is an achievement in itself. Freed from
any obligations to fact, ''The Manchurian Candidate'' can play far dirtier than ''Fahrenheit 9/11.'' Not being a documentary, it can also open on far
more screens -- some 2,800, which is more than three times what Michael Moore could command on his opening weekend (or any weekend to
''The Manchurian Candidate'' is a product of Paramount Pictures, whose chairwoman, Sherry Lansing, is a loyal Democratic contributor,
according to public records. (So, for the most part, is her boss, the Viacom chairman, Sumner Redstone.) One of the film's stars, Meryl Streep,
shared the stage with Whoopi Goldberg at the recent Kerry-Edwards fund-raiser. As Bill O'Reilly will be glad to hear, the cameo role of a cablenews reporter is played by Al Franken.
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The screenplay has holes as large as those in our still woefully inadequate homeland security apparatus. (At the outset the film actually posits that
political conventions are exciting events where even the vice presidential nomination can still be up for grabs.) Hokey, literal-minded sci-fi
gimmickry usurps the wit of the 1962 original, which was faithfully adapted by the director John Frankenheimer and the screenwriter George
Axelrod from the 1959 Richard Condon novel. But the new version, even at its clunkiest, could not be more uncompromising in its paranoid
portrayal of a political cartel with certain familiar traits that will stop at nothing, including the exploitation and even the fomenting of terrorism,
to hold on to power for its corporate backers.
The original ''Manchurian Candidate'' was both anti-Communist and anti-Joe McCarthy. It theorized that the Chinese and Russians could try to
overthrow the American government by using covert Washington operatives disguised as Commie-hunting American demagogues. The new
''Candidate,'' which takes the first gulf war instead of the Korean War as its historical template, finds a striking new international villain to replace
the extinct evil empires of Mao and Stalin: Manchurian Global, a ''supremely powerful, well-connected, private equity fund'' that is in league with
the Saudis and eager to scoop up the profits from privatizing the American Army. Think of it as the Carlyle Group or Halliburton on steroids, just
as its primary fictional political beneficiary, the well-heeled ''Prentiss family dynasty,'' with its three generations of Washington influence, is at
most one syllable removed from the Bushes.
Perhaps to fake out the right, the villain played by Ms. Streep has been given the look, manner and senatorial rank of Hillary Clinton. (The
character's invective, typified by her accusation that civil libertarians enable suicide bombers, is vintage Fox News Channel, blond auxiliary
division.) She has programmed her son to be the ''first privately owned and operated vice president of the United States'' -- in other words, the
left's demonized image of the current vice president. This conspiracy unfolds in a sinister present-day America where surveillance cameras track
library visitors, cable news channels peddle apocalypse 24/7, and the American government launches pre-emptive military strikes in countries
like Guinea to prolong a war on terror ''with no end in sight.'' The crucial election at hand will use electronic touch screens for voting, a dark
intimation of Floridian balloting mischief. It will not be an election at all, says the movie's military-man hero (Denzel Washington in Colin
Powell's rimless specs), but ''a coup -- in our own country, a regime change.''
The first ''Manchurian Candidate'' was, famously, a box-office flop. But it labored under two handicaps that its remake does not. Its premiere was
just two days into the Cuban missile crisis, a terrifying real-life drama that would have dwarfed any fictional big-screen scenario of Communist
malevolence. And daring as it was by Hollywood standards, the first ''Manchurian Candidate'' was not exactly on top of the news. McCarthy was
not only dead by 1962 but had been out of power since his censure by the Senate in 1954.
It's a fool's errand to predict the commercial success of the remake. If it's a hit -- always a big if -- the audience will be larger, more politically
diverse and, given the stars, older (and therefore more likely to vote) than that of ''Fahrenheit 9/11.'' The film carries too much show-business
establishment freight to be easily marginalized as a fringe product of the ''loony left,'' as it surely will be by the same crowd who inflated Whoopi
Goldberg's tasteless sexual innuendos into a ''hatefest.'' Dismiss the movie's plot as an over-the-top fantasy and you're still left with a foreboding
mood of high anxiety that may strike audiences as recognizably up-to-the-minute.
That atmosphere is one of sheer fear; Mr. Demme was, after all, the director of ''The Silence of the Lambs.'' ''The American people are terrified,''
says Ms. Streep's villainous senator early on as, John Ashcroft-style, she wields a national security report promising ''another cataclysm, probably
nuclear.'' And so we watch her and the rest of the Manchurian Global cabal exploit that fear in any way possible, using the mass media as a
brainwashing tool, manipulating patriotic iconography for political ends. ''Compassionate vigilance'' is one campaign slogan. A televised election
night rally features a Mount Rushmore backdrop (as in a signature Bush photo op) and a chorus line of heroic cops and firemen (reminiscent of
the early Bush-Cheney ads exploiting the carnage at ground zero).
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The new ''Manchurian Candidate,'' in other words, plays by the same nasty rules as the administration it attacks, stoking fear for partisan
advantage by making the demagogues of fear almost as scary as the terrorists themselves. Though the terminally cautious Kerry campaign
would never make this argument, its cultural surrogates are bringing it to an expanding variety of venues, high and low.
In the weeks before the Republican convention, Alfred A. Knopf, fresh from its merchandising triumph with Bill Clinton's ''My Life,'' will
release Nicholson Baker's incendiary vest-pocket-size novel, ''Checkpoint,'' in which a politically ambidextrous protagonist (he hates both
abortion and Dick Cheney) lays out a case for assassinating the president. (It, too, includes a reference to ''The Manchurian Candidate.'')
Stars as big and demographically disparate as Howard Stern (whose radio ratings have risen since he started vilifying the ''fascist right
wing'') and the chart-topping rapper Jadakiss (whose single ''Why'' suggests that Mr. Bush knocked down the twin towers) are making the
Dixie Chicks look like Young Republicans. On his current crosscountry tour, Ozzy Osbourne is aping a recent Bush-Cheney ad's blending
of a shouting Hitler with images of Al Gore and Michael Moore by just as crudely juxtaposing the Führer's face with the president's. ''The
crowd didn't seem to mind,'' reported The New York Times's Ben Ratliff in his eyewitness account of one of the Ozzfest's recent dates in
suburban New York.
You will, of course, see none of this at the Democratic convention, where ''optimism'' will be the default setting and even Mr. Kerry will
once more, heaven help him and us, attempt to smile. That's why the networks, not to mention most viewers, are staying away. But starting
on Friday at a theater near you, fear will be back in the driver's seat of a ruthless campaign in which the battle over our nightmares about Al
Qaeda will be bloody and decisive whether Al Qaeda itself is heard from or not.