We’ve all seen a version of the scene in the movies before. The two lusty young leads finally find themselves alone after the agonizing sexual cat-and-mouse game of the film’s first hour. The furtive across-the-office glances and loaded cocktail party repartee are over, and the two stars have finally broken down the hotel room door and begun tearing at each other’s clothes. It degenerates quickly from there: mashing jaws, flying furniture, booming score. Supposedly this is what we pay our ten bucks to see: two sex symbols in a fever to get it on.
We saw that kind of scene last week, as the American news media and the Pentagon, after months of agonizing waiting (no wonder France took so much abuse), finally fell in each other’s arms in the Mesopotamian desert. And they went at it so hard that they burned a real hole in the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust that rose so high that you could see it from your living room in Duluth to the middle of your regularly scheduled al-Jazeera program. It was literally the lay that shook the world.
You could see it coming in the hours and days after Bush made his ultimatum last week, when the politicians and the pundits began ritualistically mirroring the other’s opinions, like Frigate-birds in a beach mating dance. In those 48 hours after the ultimatum, politicians from across what passes in this country for a political spectrum–from aristocrat Republicans like Michael Bloomberg, to “centrists” like John McCain, to lefties-of-the-Warren-Beatty-class like Gary Hart–confidently announced, as though it were something we’d all sat down and agreed upon at some point, that of course the “time for debate is over,” and we now must support our troops until the war is finished. And the news media quickly agreed, in some cases explicitly (the Weekly Standard, Amarillo Globe News), but more often than not, implicitly and with unbridled glee.
It was not hard to spot that moment, because as soon as the “debate” was pronounced over, the preposterous facsimile of journalism that had marked the months leading up to the war vanished, replaced on every network by a veritable blizzard of video gadgetry and power-worshipping bullshit.
No more pissy Crossfire shows in front of stuttering studio audiences. No more boring stand-ups in front of the U.N. No more of that asshole Dominique de Villepin. It was all the good stuff now: heroic shots of “our men” in desert vests and gas masks on the front lines, dramatic video phone technology following the northward race of the intrepid 7th cavalry, a swooping “digital globe” that allows you to watch a scale map turn into an actual picture of Tariq Aziz’s house.
There were so many video effects that it was sometimes hard to see the actual people who were reading the news. Many of the channels (in particular Fox and MSNBC) adopted a two-box format in which the newsreader occupied a smallish hole on the left side of the screen, while the other side contained a live shot of the subject location (Baghdad, Kuwait City). Surrounding the two boxes: a dizzying array of crawls and logos, which from time to time would morph into cutesy, 3-D-rendered graphics of deadly weapons that would literally fly in from the edge of the screen and then stop to rotate proudly in the middle of the video showroom, like the new car on The Price is Right.
Even the language of the war coverage was gadgetry. If you blocked out all the catchphrases the networks deployed for this war (and they were definitely deployed, that’s exactly the right word), there was almost no journalistic content left. Most broadcasts were little more than an unceasing string of military jingles and acronyms, many of them obvious sexual double-entendres: “bunker call,” “target of opportunity,” “pinpoint strike,” “size of California,” “embedded reporter,” “tip of the spear,” “wave of steel,” “coalition of the willing,” DMZ, CENTCOM, and my favorite, JOC–Joint Operations Center. The jargon orgy was so intense that in one particularly desperate moment of early afternoon viewing hatred–while in the middle of a prolonged fantasy about hitting Aaron Brown in the face with an oar–I actually caught myself involuntarily constructing the acronym VPOT, for “Vilest Prick on Television.”
And meanwhile, every network news set was transformed into a boozy officers’ club, with a succession of current and former military guest analysts who lined up to be gently fellated on air: Wesley Clark, Norman Schwarzkopf, William Cohen, Brigadier Gen. David Grange (ret.), even the evil narc monster Barry McCaffrey, a person whose acceptance in polite society I remain completely unable to comprehend. While these overgrown kids were allowed to stomp around the sets doing their best Buck Turgidson impersonations (in one particularly chilling segment, Clark and CNN anchor Miles O’Brien played with a model A-10 Tank killer plane, with O’Brien zooming it back and forth over a map of Iraq), the reporters did their best to add their own rhetorical flourishes to the Bush administration’s transparent efforts at myth-making.
After CNN’s John King “reported” that the war had commenced with George Bush’s two-word order, “Let’s go,” (he got his elbows dirty digging for this one, of course; it wasn’t fed to him by someone in the White House press office), VPOT Aaron Brown fleshed out the plot for the audience.
“If a speechwriter had done it, it would have been ‘Let’s roll,’” he said. “But ‘Let’s go’ gets the message across just as well.”
You could almost see the cartoon hearts fluttering from his breast.
Even the Soviets couldn’t have called something like that journalism. They would have been too ashamed.
“The Time for Debate Is Over” is a pretty obvious political idea. That’s when the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks can be forced to publicly apologize for criticizing the president, Tom Daschle can be dragged on the air to pledge allegiance to the chief (mumbling through what appears to be a mouthful of his own testicles) and all the important votes in the Senate are 99-0. Your basic fascist’s wet dream. I saw a lot of this stuff when I lived in Uzbekistan many years ago.
What “The Time for Debate Is Over” means is that the mass media can finally give in to its urges and become 0 percent thought and 100 percent mechanism. It can spend the majority of its time giving us a high-tech digital display of the score of the football game in the desert, and in the few dead moments, it can coo pillow talk at Bush and his generals. There were a few times last week when the Penthouse Forum-letter quality of the reporting was just nauseating. Last Thursday, for instance, the crawl at the bottom of the CNN broadcast read:
“New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins tells CNN that ‘it feels like an earthquake’ as the U.S. enters Iraq.”
We’re now watching pornography on television. And like all pornography, the location is incidental. The real action isn’t the disarmament of Saddam Hussein somewhere across the ocean, but a long-desired merger of despotic political power and mechanized information.