Schlock and Awe

The media march off to war with Iraq:
A TV glossary

Schlock and Awe
By Michael Tortorello

Before our nation finishes operating on Iraq’s freedom, it’s likely that the American media will be blamed for having provoked the war, lied about the war, prolonged the war, and—if we’re all really unlucky—lost the war, too. These days, it’s hard to imagine the public jeering at returning war veterans. But it’s no stretch to picture someone hawking a loogie at Aaron Brown—and he’d best be on the lookout from both his left and right. Cynics may say that our nation’s war coverage has never been so grotesque: so facile, so biased, so manipulative. But then cynicism here is just another form of idealism—the notion that things are getting worse presupposes that they were once better.

Not convinced that yesterday was every bit as wretched as today? Check out this passage from near the end of Michael Herr’s Vietnam masterpiece Dispatches about the bloody art of media euphemism:

It was characteristic of a lot of Americans in Vietnam to have no idea of when they were being obscene, and some correspondents fell into that, writing their stories from the daily releases and battlegrams, tracking them through with the cheer-crazed language of the macv [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] Information Office, things like “discreet burst” (one of those tore an old grandfather and two children to bits as they ran along a paddy wall one day, at least according to the report made later by the gunship pilot), “friendly casualties” (not warm, not fun), “meeting engagement” (ambush), concluding usually with 17 or 117 or 317 enemy dead and American losses “described as light.”

On Day 10 of George Bush’s Iraqi Death Trip, American losses are still
being described as light. And, hell, maybe they are. But for all our nation’s splendid technological advances on the battlefield and in the skies, the language of warfare hasn’t come so far.

The “Shlock and Awe” tv glossary below aspires to cut through what nearly every news anchor has ponderously been calling “the fog of war”—as if they were quoting an obscure passage from Thucydides—and replace it with the fog of punditry. On the subject of obscure passages from Thucydides, how about this adage from The History of the Peloponnesian War: “Zeal is always at its height at the commencement of an undertaking.” (Recall what Donald Rumsfeld declared last week, We’re still, needless to say, much closer to the beginning than the end.) Less than two weeks into the campaign, our zeal for war seems to have dissipated—and no one is looking forward to the undertaking.


24-Hour News Cycle In fact, there is only one hour of news a day. TV just makes it feel like 24 hours. While CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News wage a battle of attrition with our attention span, the major national dailies—the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, USA Today—hit the stand each morning with all the TV news and then some. Merely supplying babble and B-roll for the broadcasts consumes the massive resources of TV news. And so one begins to notice that for breaking stories, the networks constantly cite wire reports, print journalists, and Arab news teams. CNN has a debriefing arrangement with the reporters of the New York Times. MSNBC joins forces with the Washington Post. True, the pixilated videophone images of the “steel wave” rolling across the desert create a more beautiful digital dreamscape than anything out of Hollywood. Yet to convey real poignancy and emotion, the TV broadcasts flip through slide shows of still photographs before each commercial break. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 10 minutes spent on a newspaper’s web site is the equivalent of six hours at the TV screen.

Abu Dhabi TV First Al Jazeera, and now we’ve got to keep a cage open in Guantanamo for these anti-American jokers, too. In one CNN reporting package, an Arab media commentator notes that during the last Persian party, viewers across the Middle East tuned in to CNN. The proliferation of homegrown satellite networks has utterly changed this dynamic, in the process helping to create what CNN’s Wesley Clark accurately calls “pan-Arab consciousness.”

Baghdad The TV networks know as much about wartime life in the Iraqi capital as they do about the nightly routine in Dick Cheney’s bedchamber—and have even less interest in uncovering the details. Why are veteran journalists the only people asked to comment on the experience of a Baghdad bombing season? Apparently, there’s not a single Iraqi exile in the United States with a firsthand perspective.

Brown, Aaron see Kudos, Slant, and Smiling Disease

Carpet Bombing Even during an epic sandstorm that many Iraqis credit as Allah’s divine retribution against the invading infidels, Ted Koppel’s hair remains beyond comprehension.

Casualties Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke doesn’t release these figures for days at a time while the proper “processes” are being followed. By contrast, late on Day 9, Pentagon pep-squad leader Bill O’Reilly reveals that inside intelligence sources have told him reliably that 25,000 to 35,000 Iraqi soldiers have been killed. So it is that the War on Terror progresses from Ground Zero to adding zeros.

Center of Gravity What military planners call the “center of gravity” — Baghdad — proves to be a vaporous specter for the people in the anchor chairs and the retired warriors who command the cameras. In the early days of the campaign, three or four anchors muster the gumption to ask aloud what the armed forces plan to do when they get to the edges of the city. We’re told repeatedly that the military intends to avoid “street-by-street” fighting. But no colonel or general presents the plausible alternative: that in the effort to preserve American lives, we’ll reduce the sprawling concrete metropolis to something you can sift through a tea strainer. On Day 9, CNN’s resident general speaks encouragingly of America’s urban combat experience in places like Hue, Vietnam; Beirut, Lebanon; and Mogadishu, Somalia. Apparently, no one has told the play-by-play man that America’s record on that road trip was 0-3.

Crawl Boy, does it ever. The ticker at the bottom of the screen changes about as often as the coffee creamer at Perkins. One can wake up in the morning to read a battle statistic from An Nasiriyah, see it again when one comes home from work, encounter the identical bulletin upon shuffling off to bed, and discover the same tag scrolling along the screen the next morning. For three days straight, the Fox News crawl reports that New York City is spending $900K a day on police expenses to deal with protestors. War is free; it’s the peaceniks that are expensive.

Creative Visualization For the first 72 hours of the war, the news out of the Pentagon is that Saddam might be dead, Iraqis are surrendering faster than they can drop cammo trou, and the collapse of the regime might have happened sometime back in the Ottoman days. The American media faithfully internalize this information for the viewers at home—and, of course, for the CNN fanatics in the bunkers beneath Baghdad. The amazing logic is that by saying that Saddam has fallen, the fickle friends around him may very well see to it that Saddam falls. And for anyone who’s taken pleasure from a John le Carré novel—or an Orwell jeremiad—the genius of this “information operation” has a sly appeal. But just as visualizing world peace hasn’t achieved much more than rusting out a lot of Volvo bumpers, fantasizing about a bloodless war proves no guarantee of the real thing. Still, it must be said that for all but the most diseased nihilists on the country’s couches, the alternative scenario proves a lot less fun to imagine in the days that follow. Who wants to visualize Baghdad and Basra getting a Grozny-style architectural makeover while hundreds of thousand of civilians die and American troops stack up in Arlington?

C-Span For all the yellow journalism dressed up in the red, white, and blue, C-Span proves the point that there has never in American history been so much good information so readily available to so many people. Late at night on Day 4 of the conflict, C-Span airs long interviews with POWs from Gulf War Junior, collected in 1996 by a POW museum in Andersonville, Georgia. These are harrowing stories delivered soberly and almost without editing in front of a black backdrop. Sgt. Daniel Stamaris, who was shot down in a Black Hawk in the waning days of the war, talks about being left to die by Iraqis in the 40-degree chill of night, stripped of his gear, his pelvis shattered, wild dogs circling in the distance. He goes on to recall being fed a tomato by an Iraqi doctor—which he devoured—and how he eats tomatoes to this day, despite disliking their taste. Later, he speaks about his relief at being able to piss into a bottle on the back of a pick-up truck after his system had been in shock for 48 hours. He is without animus toward his captors, radiant with the belief that God had a plan for him that didn’t involve his dying. It’s the most involving human story in a week of war coverage. Two days later, another of C-Span’s Andersonville interviewees appears on Fox News, spewing platitudes and staying on message about winning the war quickly, getting the boys home. Commercial television has an unfailing ability to leach the soul out of everything it touches.

Dolphins When the time comes to navigate the mined harbor of Umm Qasr, we learn that our humanitarian strategy will fly or founder on the backs of creatures that can’t find their way out of a tuna net.


Drums The rat-a-tat-tat martial music that roars behind Fox’s logo sequences evokes images of a little drummer boy who has been gobbling steroids. And yet for all its bombast, the effect is ultimately kind of silly—the equivalent of the bouncing Balkan nationalist songs that some call “turbo-Serb.”

Embeds One Fayetteville Observer reporter takes the word a little too literally, becoming engaged to a major in the unit she’d been assigned to cover. After a week of leaving her in bed—or rather, in the field—Observer editors finally relieve her of duty. In a somewhat similar spirit, media critics like to say the 600-odd reporters traveling with coalition troops are embedded up the Pentagon’s ass. True, TV’s embeds—CNN’s Jason Bellini, NBC’s David Bloom and Kerry Sanders—do get caught up in the postcard gee-whizness of the war’s first hours. But by Day 4 and 5 many embeds are reporting on fearsome supply runs that feel like turkey shoots and frontline alarm and confusion. The most radical and estimable part of embedding is the notion that America’s volunteer army will act less like Hondo and more like Shane under the ugly circumstances that inevitably arise in combat. The only thing surer than the media’s ideological passivity is the ubiquity of career opportunism. Even the embedded Geraldo—whose tight T-shirt, cammos, and desert bandana suggest his real allegiance may be to the Village People—is going to fancy himself Seymour Hersh when presented with scores of civilian dead. And if the troops start to feel ill-equipped and marooned (on Day 10, we’re hearing that some soldiers are down to one MRE a day), it’s unlikely that the hungry reporters in the tent next door will kowtow to generals spinning the story from the CENTCOM Dream Factory. Embedding is a radical experiment for the democratic press and a daring statement of trust in the men and women at the bottom of the military ranks. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Enlisted Soldiers From the battalions of colonels and generals and admirals pontificating for the camera over Stratego boards and room-sized Twister set-ups, you’d think the battlefields were made up solely of commissioned officers. Fox slips a captain in front of the camera in the deep hours of the a.m. But among the regular squadron, the lowest rank you’ll see bloviating in the expert’s chair is a major. Surely a misery-tempered marine sergeant would have some insight into the exhaustion, dread, anger, and killing-guilt of the forward troops. The near-total absence of enlisted soldiers on the TV stages is the equivalent of a sportscast staffed entirely by graying general managers.

Fedayeen Saddam Newscasters and analysts are outraged that these suicidal thugs in black pajamas won’t stand out in the open desert under our precision-guided weaponry. Forget the Fedayeen’s war crimes against the Iraqi people; these guys are guilty of bad sportsmanship. By Day 10, Donald Rumsfeld and Fox News will have promoted these dirty fighters from mere “terrorists” to the lofty status of “death squads.”

Fun Run Forget whether our national holiday in Iraq is going to turn out to be a cakewalk or a pie in the face. On Day 3 of the war, an AP wire story reports that America’s commander in chief is barely tuning in to TV coverage. Turns out that while Americans are sitting gut-wracked in front of CNN, George Bush is having a sleepover at Camp David and crowing about his efforts to shave precious seconds off his mile time.

Grandstanding While a bloodcurdling air siren goes Celine Dion in Kuwait City, ABC correspondent Mike Von Fremd makes a surprising admission about the courage of the fourth estate. During the last Gulf War, this young Charles Grodin look-alike confesses, reporters were reluctant to retreat to air shelters because they knew they’d be forfeiting one of their few chances at screen time. The desperate attention-seeking of Joe Millionaire contestants suddenly seems less embarrassing.

Hardcore Band Name Which phrase makes a better name for a hardcore band: “Shock and Awe” or “Coalition of the Willing”?

Holt, Lester see Smiling Disease

House-by-House Fighting In the coming weeks, every time you hear this phrase in prime time, future Democratic presidential nominee and North Carolina senior Senator John “Pretty Boy” Edwards will add another vote to his estimated 2004 Electoral College tally.

Huns Is it only a matter of time before American TV tells us that Iraqi fighters are skewering babies on bayonets? Routine are the stories about Saddam’s Satanists stringing up American sympathizers and pulling out dissidents’ tongues with pliers. One Iraqi exile on MSNBC recounts the lurid fate of an Uday party girl who was punished for blabbing to her hairdresser by being stripped in front of a crowd, forced to dance naked, then covered with honey and fed to attack Dobermans. (When Maxim started this story back in 2001, the dog food was a demure architecture student.) Frankly, this cast of characters is wasted on TV news. Uday should be looking for work as the villain in the next Bond film.

International Community The Bush White House is more likely to talk about gay liberation in the marines. By the time the first Cruise missiles are landing around Iraq’s Moustache-in-Chief, the phrase “international community” has been struck from the lexicon of the American media. Its appearance on the BBC’s C-Span simulcast is enough to inspire Clinton nostalgia.

Al Jazeera American media critics point approvingly to the cornucopia of carnage to be seen on Qatar’s satellite news service. This is your network to see the hollowed-out heads that the West calls “collateral damage.” In the first few days of news coverage, the American media pussyfoot around hospitalized civilians and dazed American POWs, but by Day 7, burned babies and traumatized old men are starting to get screen time on all the U.S. networks and news stations. Forget the slogan of local American news: If it bleeds, it leads. The news criteria for Al Jazeera: If internal organs are leaking, it’s speaking.

Judge, Mike Surely this King of the Hill must be behind the scenes doing the voice work for napalm-throated Colonel David Hunt, Fox’s just-folks military expert.

Kid Rock MTV news announces that Mr. Pamela Anderson not only wants to go Ted Nugent on Saddam’s ass, but would follow that up by getting all Barry Sadler on Kim Jong-il’s pompadour.

Kudos There’s more back-patting during war coverage than ass-slapping during a Superbowl blowout. Aaron Brown is the uncontested master of the form. “Photo editing” is “one of the great jobs.” “The Tennessean” is a “great old newspaper.” The New York Times’ Michael Gordon is “a very fine reporter.” In fact, the “ability of the New York Times reporters is a wonderful addition” to CNN’s team. You can take the boy out of Hopkins, but you can’t take Hopkins out of the boy.

Liberation The American media’s term for Occupation.

Michael Moore Bless him for breaking Hollywood’s vow of platitudes, but listening to this director recruit converts to pacifism through his shrill and smirking Oscar speech is like watching George Bush sell participatory democracy to Arabs.

MOAB On the eighth day of the war, with biblical sandstorms swallowing forward progress and American marines besieged by suicidal Saddamites, MSNBC unleashes its newly developed tactical weapon, the Mother of All Blowhards, Jesse Ventura.

Non-Commissioned Officers see Enlisted Soldiers

Occupation The Arab media’s term for Liberation.

Palestine The rest of the world’s media use the word as a noun, referring to a state called Palestine. Americans use it as an adjective, “Palestinian,” which comes before the word “territories.”

Porn title Which makes a better title for a porn video: Shock and Ahhhh or Coalition of the Thrilling? (Alternative title for the hardcore shelves: ‘Get Sodom!’).

Qusay The good son.

Republican Guard First the Coalition of the Willing had invisible friends. Now our enemies are invisible, too. The Republican Guard are everywhere. They’re nowhere. On Day 8, CNN’s embed Walter Rodgers frightfully announces that thousands of elite Iraqi troops are making a beeline toward tired and under-supplied 3rd-7th Cavalry soldiers, under the blinding cover of a sandstorm. One imagines the parents of these soldiers canceling dinner plans to await the battle in the family den. Then, after hours of hysterical rebroadcasts, the horde dissolves as mysteriously as it formed.

Shaping the Battlefield When seen alongside Beach Body infomercials in the logy, late-night hours, the phrase seems to suggest the battlefield might want to go on the Zone Diet and start working those glutes.

Slant The media’s political leanings are old news; the contorted physical posture of today’s TV anchors is the real story. Aaron Brown slopes forward and to the right; by his sixth or seventh hour on camera he’s practically slouched from Atlanta HQ to a satellite facility in Ft. Lauderdale. Peter Jennings twists 30 degrees off his axis—as if he’s delivering the news from a rotating restaurant. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann moves in and crowds the plate. The silver military crop on CNN’s late-night anchor Anderson Cooper seems to be magnetically attracted to the camera, pulling him forward and down. Sitting up straight is for guys who read the teleprompter, these hosts seem to be saying. Real news anchors move a little with the tide.

Smiling Disease For the first five days of the war, a handful of news anchors seem unable to shake a petroleum-eating grin—as if the story being reported were the White House Easter egg hunt. For all their trumped-up folksiness and greatest generation pomposity, the big three can still pull off gravitas. During Oscar-night updates, Peter Jennings looks positively funereal in a dark suit and thin charcoal tie. And Dan Rather, having paged through Virgil (or Bartlett’s) for inspiration, comes on dour and profound. While the smiling disease spreads as quickly as SARS in the hours after the first “decapitating” attack, the fever breaks once the anchors have to start interviewing parents of POWs.

Stalingrad see Vietnam

Tragedy The word used by news anchors to describe any Anglo-American casualty. The behind-the-lines fragging inflicted by a disturbed American loner, the incompetent Patriot missile-downing of a British warplane, the brutal capture of an errant U.S. supply convoy. Losses all, but ordinary occurrences in the course of war. If everything is a tragedy, nothing is a tragedy.

Uday Famous for kneecapping his own uncle, murdering his father’s confidential valet at a diplomatic reception, and forcing the losing Iraqi soccer side to kick a concrete ball around the pitch. Also responsible for creating the Fedayeen Saddam. Some Arab media are reporting that he suffered a brain hemorrhage at war’s start after being beaten by his own enraged bodyguard. Competing claims in the Washington Post have it that his private dinner with human shield Miss Germany sends her fleeing the country the next morning. A bad son of Shakespearean dimensions.

U Letter that in the naming of Iraqi cities does not follow Q.

Vietnam Appearances to the contrary, we’re not fighting it. Thank god Lyndon Johnson never had a son.

Vaseline Described on one admiring web site as a hotter version of Ann Coulter, Fox’s night-and-weekend anchor Laurie Dhue sinks deeper each night into some kind of lipstick dysmorphia—she’s the customer who is such an easy mark for the ladies at the makeup counter that they actually start feeling guilty. A week into the war, it appears that Dhue is slathering fistfuls of Vaseline over her mouth, perhaps as a prophylactic against chemical weapons.

Weapons of Mass Delusion Following the lead of the Jerusalem Post, Fox and CNN both report the American seizure of a seeming Iraqi chemical-weapons plant south of Baghdad on Day 5 of the campaign. In the next 12 hours, though, the story evaporates like John Poindexter’s prison time. The failure of Anglo-American troops to turn up a stockpile of something more potent than oven cleaner or color-safe bleach suggests a demoralizing, if remote, possibility. What if Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction?

We Fox News bandies about the first-person plural with cocky glee—as if daring viewers and other reporters not to root for “our” commander in chief. Yet the word drops quite naturally from the lips of embedded reporters, and for good reason. Are they expected to maintain—counter to fact—that they’re not experiencing the same firefights, the same all-night vigils, the same food as the troops that hunker down alongside them? The first-person plural is a simple observation in the field—and an ideological crowbar in the studios at home.

Xenophobia The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee should present its man-of-the-year award to Jacques Chirac. Every other day, networks parade images of French wine being poured into gutters (one long-haired jingoist instructs viewers how to buy American aspirin and antacids instead of German Bayer products). And hey, at least it curbs Fox’s blood lust enough to keep the seething cadaver Brit Hume from demanding the precision bombing of Detroit kebab shops.

Yellow Journalism In between claiming that they’re America’s “most powerful name in news” and steeling us to “stay brave, stay aware, stay with Fox!” Murdoch’s mujahideen also trumpet their swaggering product as “Fair news, balanced news.” And in fact, in the first few days of the war, Fox’s triumphalism is just a barroom braggart’s version of CNN. By Day 6, though, the assertions of American omnipotence are starting to take on a desperate air with Fox World’s Neil Cavuto delivering an I’m-Not-Embarrassed-to-Believe-in-America valentine that would strike Paul Harvey as Pollyannaish. On Day 8, Fox News suffers a military catastrophe: Loyal, senior military leaders—and not retired ones, mind you—have widely begun to question the assumptions and preparations behind the battle plan. (Tommy Franks may not do press conferences, but his underlings perform a smashing job of shaping the battlefield of blame against Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the other suit-wearing warriors.) This isn’t crisis coverage but coverage in crisis. How will Fox News pin the blame for public war doubts on the liberal press without questioning the judgment and disparaging the patriotism of our honorable men and women in uniform? Stay tuned.

Zahn, Paula see Smiling Disease

Zionists A remarkably industrious people. According to the Iraqi information minister, the Zionists are not only responsible for the bombing of Baghdad and the oppression of the entire Islamic world. They’re also suspected of stocking the Yankees’ pitching rotation, inventing hard lemonade in a Mossad laboratory, and producing the last two Friday films as an insult against the Muslim holy day.