Summing up the Persian Gulf war coverage
The moment President Bush looked at us through our television screens and said, ”This war is now behind us,” a shiver ran down my back. I feared that, as far as TV is concerned, the Persian Gulf war is probably far from over. After the negotiations are completed, after the troops arrive home, after all the news shows have offered all of their analyses, I have the awful feeling that the final phase of this conflict will be… a network miniseries.
It’s inevitable. Think about it: John Lithgow as CNN’s Peter Arnett — attacked on all sides, struggling heroically o send out informative reports from Baghdad. Perfect Strangers‘ Mark Linn-Baker as ABC’s Forrest Sawyer, delivering terse, articulate war updates to Peter Jennings (Roger Moore — who else?). And, perhaps, Rob Lowe as NBC’s Arthur ”The Desert Fox” Kent.
I already have a title for at least the first night of the miniseries: War and Forgetfulness, since in media terms the first stage of this war was characterized by a willful, pervasive amnesia about basic rights and responsibilities. By imposing exceptionally strict press restrictions, the government ”forgot” about the press’ right to try to find out what’s happening — a right the press has enjoyed during every modern war up until the invasion of Grenada. And, equally significant, the American press ”forgot” that its job is not to win popularity polls with the public, or to curry favor with military officials still peeved about TV coverage of Vietnam, but to unearth fresh facts in an independent manner.
During the initial U.S. air attacks, the networks observed the Pentagon press restrictions, and the result was TV war coverage dominated by talking heads: network anchors, correspondents, and a succession of military analysts endlessly discussing the action that could not be shown. While it was obviously important to cover the war in its first stages, given the lack of compelling film footage, this made for bad television. But the networks did little to make the analysis and debate more interesting by offering us different sets of heads — opening up discussions with a wider range of people on all sides of the war (we saw few peace activists or Middle Eastern scholars and analysts, for example). Instead, television just gave up and resumed most of its regular entertainment programming.
It was only after the ground war commenced on Feb. 23 that the most enterprising reporting took place. ABC’s Sawyer and CBS’ Bob McKeown broke away from the government-organized press pools and secured interviews with soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict, presenting vivid pictures of the widespread devastation of Kuwait.
McKeown’s achievement was undercut, however, by the way CBS packaged it. On Feb. 26, the reporter and his camera crew had the simple, dramatically effective idea of filming their arrival in the embattled capital of Kuwait City, with McKeown maintaining a running commentary on what he saw. (”Inside the city, a lot of hulks of automobiles, and entire sections of Kuwait City which have been deserted….It was a wonderful drive in because everybody we met was surprised to see us… ”)
But CBS stuck into the lower left-hand corner of the screen a prominent CBS logo and the florid phrase ”The Road to Kuwait City: CBS News Exclusive.” What’s wrong with these networks, with their intrusive labeling and their specially commissioned war-coverage theme music? Don’t they realize that one thing that drives viewers crazy — and away from their TV sets — is this incessant hype, this compulsion to turn everything, no matter how serious, into a network plug? ”The Road to Kuwait City” threatened to turn McKeown and Rather’s reporting into a Bob Hope — Bing Crosby road picture. It’s one of those minor details that can undermine viewers’ already shaky faith in TV news.
Ultimately, however, television’s most striking image wasn’t one of battle or carnage; it wasn’t CNN’s Charles Jaco diving for a gas mask or Dan Rather pointing out the weapons in an abandoned Iraqi command bunker (”These guns are atrociously maintained and not very well cleaned”). No, the most dramatic moment of TV’s coverage of the war occurred on Feb. 27, when the U.S. military took over television itself — when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf led reporters and viewers through the U.S. war strategy.
After so many stultifying press briefings over the preceding two months — in which government representatives, in the name of global security, did their best to avoid answering questions — it was mesmerizing to watch Schwarzkopf’s step-by-step analysis, his vivid descriptions and free-flowing opinions.
It was a dazzling performance. The 6-foot-4-inch four-star general, dressed in telegenic camouflage fatigues, took his audience through the war from beginning to end, making dexterous use of maps to point out troop positions and the military thinking behind them. Schwarzkopf was asked about Saddam Hussein as a military strategist; the general’s eyes twinkled as he replied, ”He is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational art, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier.” Schwarzkopf paused before dropping his verbal Scud. ”Other than that, he’s a great military man.” Boom! The briefing room exploded with laughter.
So who would play Schwarzkopf in our inevitable miniseries? Willard Scott? Jonathan Winters? No: They’re physically right, and they’ve got the twinkly eyes, but they lack the general’s gravity, to say the least. Maybe Ben Johnson: The veteran actor (The Last Picture Show and countless Westerns) is a little old for the part, but he’s got Schwarzkopf’s bulky strength, plainspoken eloquence, and tough-guy serenity down cold. If the networks really hurry, one of them could get this miniseries on the air by fall.