As President George W. Bush prepares to launch his own variation on the Outkast hit "Bombs Over Baghdad" (key lyric: "Don't even bang unless you plan to hit something"), the mainstream media is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to report on the desert turmoil to come. No need to marshal forces. News organs of nearly every description have been ready for weeks, if not months, to provide readers, listeners and viewers with a constant flow of information about America's attempt to consign Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to history's garbage disposal.
Yet if the coverage to date is any indication, figuring out the essence of what's happening and why will be about as easy as convincing war protesters that giving peace a chance is highly overrated. Journalists and personalities all along the political spectrum have regularly engaged in enough spin on the topic to make Tara Lipinski dizzy. And considering today's media environment, which tends to value noisy confrontation over reasoned conversation, the chances of this situation changing for the better once the bullets start flying in earnest are slender indeed.
Not that every media enterprise rushing pencil-packing troops to the front lines is doing so for blatantly cynical reasons. Journalistic tenets about, among other things, the average citizen's right to know what's being done in his or her name are certainly hefty parts of the mix. But competition and public persona are factors, too. For instance, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, which may be putting more energy and resources into their Iraq efforts than they have for any past international conflict, have substantial incentive to enter the international-reporting fray. Post owner Dean Singleton has repeatedly stated that he wants his paper to be among the top dailies in the country, and one way to show that it's ready to play with the big boys is to establish a global presence. As for the News, the paper generally kept staffers close to home when it came to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, whereas the Post racked up plenty of frequent-flyer miles. Were the Rocky to largely stay out of the game again, it might send Colorado readers the message that it is a fine local paper, but the Post is far better when it comes to the tough stuff.
Issues like these remained in the background during a March 17 visit to KNRC radio by News managing editor Deb Goeken and Post national editor Michelle Fulcher, who spoke to host Greg Dobbs about their respective war plans. When Dobbs asked why they were bothering to do their own things when both papers subscribe to the New York Times and other syndication services with far more experience in military correspondence, they focused on their responsibility to share the latest happenings with area residents and their ability to dig out local angles that are likely to elude outsiders.
At the same time, Goeken and Fulcher noted that the U.S. government rules regarding coverage of the imminent carnage have cons as well as pros. They praised the decision to let outlets position journalists inside specific military units -- an action referred to for some strange reason as "embedding" -- but noted that the rules don't allow reporters and photographers from a given paper to be paired. As such, writers are being put in the position of taking snapshots, and shutterbugs with little or no writing experience may be pressed into penning their own accounts. Rocky photog Todd Heisler already has one byline under his belt, for a puffy piece about Seabees in Kuwait passing time during a day off. Won't be many of those for a while.
Another embedding problem cropped up after one journo each from the Post and the News wound up assigned to a group of Fort Carson soldiers who were slated for deployment to Turkey. Unfortunately for them, an aid-and-compensation package/bribe estimated at $30 billion wasn't enough to convince Turkey's leaders to let the division set up camp in their territory, stranding all concerned in Colorado. As a result, readers have been treated to Fort Carson-based stories like "Military Whips Up New, Improved MREs," a March 14 offering by the Post's Erin Emery that gushingly described field rations highlighted by "country captain chicken, beef enchilada, beef with mushroom, Jamaican pork chop" and "traditional favorites" like "beef stew, chili mac and spaghetti." War may be hell, but it sure is tasty!
Of course, stories aren't automatically more important just because they're rooted in foreign soil. Witness "Saddled With a Risky Ride," a page-one narrative from the Sunday, March 2, Post, in which reporter Jim Hughes, writing from Kuwait, explored the world of children who ride camels competitively; as Hughes put it succinctly, "These boys are professional camel jockeys." Since "camel jockey" is a familiar slur aimed at people of Arab descent, perhaps we should anticipate a Post offering about "towel heads" in the near future.
This isn't to minimize the challenges set before local reporters who went on combat duty before there was much combat. Such journalists have been required to grind out copy from overseas to justify the expense of sending them there -- something the Rocky's M.E. Sprengelmeyer has done quite well in a series of dispatches that are being sent around the country courtesy of the Scripps Howard news service. In a wry sketch dated March 15, Sprengelmeyer asked soldiers what they would name the Iraq dust-up, with suggestions including "Operation Round Two," "Operation Read My Lips" and, best of all, "Operation Groundhog Day." Charlie Brennan, Sprengelmeyer's colleague at the News, has generated some uncommonly honest dispatches as well, like a March 13 bull session in which a bored, grumpy soldier joked (one hopes), "We're the most likely division to produce the next Timothy McVeigh."
Still, the genuinely significant developments during recent weeks were occurring in locales like the United Nations. In acknowledgement of this reality, the Rocky wisely sent its finest scribe, columnist Mike Littwin, to New York City, where he wrote about the assorted diplomatic debates from the sort of jaundiced perspective they deserved. (Littwin will be doing more on-location reporting in the coming weeks.) The Post, meanwhile, ordered foreign-affairs writer Bruce Finley to roam the region around Iraq without embedding himself in anyone or anything. Moreover, Finley apparently has carte blanche to infuse his articles with some personal beliefs, as was made obvious by his March 16 effort from Syria headlined "'No Welcome' Seen for U.S. Troops as Iraqis Vow a Fight to the Death." The piece was fresh and open-eyed, but readers of the sort who once accused former Rocky writer Holger Jensen of injecting opinion into his news articles probably took Finley's name in vain anyhow.
Once the explosions commence, Finley is all but certain to be utilized extensively by Channel 9 as part of its partnership with the Post; the paper's Web site, www.denverpost.com, lists Finley's recent articles as appearing in the "War For 9News" section. If so, his contributions will mark a minor departure for Channel 9, which has largely relied upon network footage or tried to localize Iraq matters -- a tack its rivals have duplicated. Over the past several months, the station has blended coverage of regional events (mostly anti-war rallies), interviews with military and academic experts, and touchy-feely features, like the reading of letters sent from soldiers on Hussein's doorstep to loved ones back home.
Too bad relatively benign efforts like the letters segments are regularly undercut by the use of graphics that simplify the impending clash to the point of idiocy. Channel 9's label of choice, "Target: Iraq," which it inherited from its sister network, NBC, is hardly the worst of these, and it will work fine now that decision-makers in the United States have decided to move forward without a new resolution from the U.N. Security Council. Before that point, however, it came across as needlessly aggressive, implying that attempts to prevent a military encounter were a charade that served as mere prelude to bloodshed. Just because this interpretation was probably accurate in the end doesn't mean news organizations should be in the business of casting their lot with one cause or another. No wonder so many viewers believe TV execs are practically quivering with excitement at the prospect of some nice ratings-boosting mayhem.
At talk radio, a similar philosophy is in play. A memo from a Clear Channel station in California that was quoted in this space last week puts it plainly: "People who have never listened to our stations will be tuning in out of curiosity, desperation, panic and a hunger for information. We must make sure we meet their expectations, otherwise they're gone forever and they ain't coming back."
Scott Redmond, the afternoon-drive host at Clear Channel-owned KHOW, seems to be taking this advice to heart. As noted in a recent Westword profile ("Seeing Red," January 16), Redmond, who arrived at KHOW last year, has had a difficult time cobbling together enough of a following to ensure his survival in the market. On many occasions, Redmond's numbers have been lower than those garnered by his predecessor, Reggie Rivers -- and even though Rivers resigned from KHOW rather than being canned, his departure probably wouldn't have been voluntary had he stuck around much longer.
The pressure on Redmond was certainly building, which may explain his sudden stylistic shift. In the past, he spent the majority of his time taking fuzzy stands on themes like "personal responsibility" and defending the rights of homosexuals when he wasn't chatting about contemporary music, film, television and other pop-cultural touchstones as a way of establishing his hipness. Then, within the past month or so, he transformed himself into the most bellicose Denver war booster with access to a microphone, making KOA conservative Mike Rosen seem like an appeaser by comparison. Unlike Rosen, Redmond doesn't offer arguments for actions that are ideologically rigorous or intellectually sound. Instead, he either leans on the expertise of regular guest Bob Newman, who, as Clear Channel's military analyst, at least backs up his pugnacious rhetoric with in-the-trenches expertise, or hurls red meat to the most Alley Oop-like members of the talk-radio audience.
For anyone who considers this description an exaggeration, consider that, according to one of his listeners, Redmond recently said Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a Vermonter who opposes the war, should be shot as a traitor. On the same program, the host contended that former Colorado senator Gary Hart, himself a likely presidential aspirant with doubts about initiating hostilities in Iraq, wants to screw the country as he did Donna Rice, whose tryst with Hart doomed an earlier White House bid. And during a subsequent show, Redmond asked callers to tell him what products they intended to boycott in order to express their displeasure with France, Germany and Russia for their anti-war opinions. To demonstrate that he was willing to make such a sacrifice, Redmond pledged to give up Russian vodka -- a good idea only if this beverage was responsible for the dumbest and most pathetic of his Iraq-baiting rants.
Granted, much of the stop-the-war gab on Denver radio hasn't been any more listenable than its counterpart. The aforementioned Greg Dobbs, KNRC's morning host, is capable of putting his opinions about the dangers of armed engagement in terms that are worth hearing by those who agree or disagree, but Enid Goldstein, a liberal yakker who handles afternoons on KNRC, has grown increasingly shrill and dogmatic when sharing her outlook on Iraq. Anyone wanting a definition of "preaching to the choir" need search no further.
News organizations outside Denver often fall into traps much like this one. Witness a National Public Radio story on March 17, aired locally by Colorado Public Radio, hinting that the corporations being handed the richest contracts to rebuild Iraq after the war have unreasonably close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration. This might have been a story on another day, but its timing can't help but lend credence to the claims of right-wingers that NPR consistently leans to the left.
In contrast, the lion's share of coverage on Fox News and MSNBC cable (now little more than a Fox imitator) slants so far to the other side that it's a wonder the anchors don't tip over while delivering it. To list every example of the phenomenon would require this edition of Westword to have more pages than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but one transparent ploy is defining the peace movement by the celebrities who are involved in it -- which Redmond has also been doing lately. Not all of these luminaries are dopes, as demonstrated by comedienne Janeane Garofalo, who gave Fox News's Bill O'Reilly more than he anticipated during a recent faceoff. (John S. Hall of King Missile III, profiled on page 82, is also an informed critic, albeit an exceedingly profane one.) Nonetheless, the constant focus on Fred Durst and his ilk allow non-objective-information purveyors to portray protesters as naive dilettantes who have no clue how the world really works. Or aren't we all in agreeance with that?
Whether anti-war types will get more than minimal exposure once the U.S. infantry begins to march is an open question. Already, other news is going uncovered or is receiving less attention than it would under other circumstances. A case in point is the death of Joe Coors, heir to a brewery fortune and close advisor to President Ronald Reagan. For better or worse, Coors was one of the most powerful and influential individuals ever to hail from Colorado, but on March 17, the Post and the Rocky recounted his legacy in a relatively modest amount of space because of Iraq-oriented events. If this keeps up, no less a media sensation than Elizabeth Smart may find herself struggling for ink.
In every war, there are winners and there are losers.
This just in: With all that's taking place internationally right now, media consumers in general are sticking close to radios and televisions in order to receive updates about the looming invasion of Iraq -- and every time a "breaking news" bulletin sounds, their hearts do a Keith Moon impression. So imagine how many near coronaries took place among listeners to KOA on March 17 when, just short of half past two, the Rush Limbaugh show was interrupted to reveal that...the Denver Broncos have decided to move their training facility from Greeley to their Dove Valley headquarters.
Saddam may be hot stuff to some -- but how 'bout them Broncos?