You could have knocked CNN’s Aaron Brown over with a feather. He seemed incredulous that within a twenty-four-hour period the Iraqi Minister of Information had thrown CNN out of the country (reportedly for being worse than the Bush Administration when it came to propaganda), and, back home, thousands of people had gathered outside the network’s Los Angeles and Atlanta offices to demonstrate against its Mortal Kombat-style coverage of the invasion, holding signs that read, War Is Not a Game. Iraq’s charges were “fabricated” and “unfounded,” CNN insisted. As for the demonstrators, their charge that the network was “glorifying” the war was put in the usual let’s-dismiss-this-drivel quotation marks. In fact, Brown noted, most people relax during the weekend and “for them,” meaning the real Americans, “we have polls.” On came political oracle Bill Schneider (as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, hardly a neutral analyst) to report “strong support” for the war (based on a survey of 463 people). Democrats, according to Schneider, “don’t see the connection between Iraq and 9/11 that a lot of Americans do.” In other words, Democrats are blind, and un-American to boot. Schneider advised Team Bush that they would have to find weapons of mass destruction and produce images of grateful Iraqis welcoming US troops to make the Democrats admit their “error.”
Adherence to the Katie Gibbs school of journalism–stenographers dutifully copying down and repeating back what the Big Government Officials say–has made CNN, its credibility and dignity, a huge casualty of this war. Peter Jennings and the folks at ABC sound like I.F. Stone’s Weekly by comparison. (Indeed, ABC has been targeted by the right for being too liberal because it has at times actually questioned Administration assertions.) CNN built its reputation as the television news of record, covering international stories with a depth and breadth the broadcast networks couldn’t match. But now, “the most trusted name in news” (as its news crawl has been asserting for months) looks to many of us like Team Bush’s ministry of propaganda.
This has been going on since long before the war began. On March 7, for example, Schneider effused that “America’s British allies turn out to be strongly supportive–75 percent!” Viewers then got the small print–if inspectors found proof that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and if the UN approved such action. While CNN did air debates between those opposed to and those in favor of the war, the overall common sense it conveyed was that Democratic opponents should bite their tongues. To select just one example, Judy Woodruff led a discussion with political analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Amy Walter about the Democrats’ prospects for 2004. Rothenberg said war makes it “very difficult to be partisan,” and Democrats can’t “second-guess” the President because it will make them look unpatriotic. Was any candidate free to speak or were they all really just “under a blanket”? Woodruff asked leadingly. “While fighting is going on,” Woodruff pressed on, “is it pretty much just an unspoken agreement that they can’t really say anything?” Walter confirmed. Glad that’s settled.
Once the invasion began, CNN morphed from advance team into cheerleading squad. During the first full night of the invasion, on March 20, the war became “must-see TV,” with viewers treated to a fireworks show (the bombing of Baghdad) and tanks barreling across the desert in “the race toward Baghdad.” It is true, video phones and portable satellites–not to mention that novel news-management software called “embedding”–bring live pictures of the war as it’s happening right into your living room, and this is unprecedented. Nonetheless, viewers might have felt that they were watching a reprise of the moon landing, such was the unrestrained, giddy excitement about the capabilities of this new technology.
“Never before in history have reporters been able to provide…our viewers with this kind of access,” gushed Brown as we watched what appeared to be goats in the distance. Reporter Walter Rodgers enthused about the “wonderful vignettes” of Bedouins in their tents with their families who must have been “dumbfounded” and “awestruck” at the sight of the mechanized units rolling along. “These people don’t have automobiles. Often they move by camels, and all of a sudden they’re seeing camels like nothing they ever saw before, with 120-millimeter guns stickin’ out,” chuckled Rodgers.
Brown himself indulged in bathetic musings about how the military is a family that folds into its bosom even the most lonely outcast. His embarrassing commentary only seemed worse after the tragic fragging incident on the weekend. As soon as a suspect was apprehended (but not yet charged with anything), CNN trained a camera on him and kept it on the screen, presumably in the hopes that the jacket he was using to hide his face might fall away for a second. And if you don’t think embedding is working just the way Team Bush hoped, consider that Brown asked reporter Jason Bellini to “describe the day your Marines went through.” (Emphasis mine.) One had to go elsewhere to get detailed coverage of Iraqi casualties–a rather central aspect of the war. Apparently following the Team Bush line that showing footage of US POWs constitutes a “war crime,” CNN censored itself longer than other news outlets and refused to air the now infamous Al-Jazeera footage that millions around the world had already seen.
There was a reason thousands demonstrated against CNN. For them, this war is not a trade show for new communications technology or a ball game between the Oakland Raiders and some Peewee football team. It is a deadly event with enormous consequences for us all, and, naïvely or not, they want coverage in service of the people, not only in the service of power. CNN has, sadly, descended to new lows, and it will take some real work to make many of us not think of the word “lackey” whenever we see or hear those initials.