THINK OF the war coverage as a series of concentric circles. The one closest to the war is made up of the all-news channels. It’s all war, all the time, but with the banality of continuing coverage, you rarely see an actual report — just more talk, more generals, more embedded reporters, and the greenish glow of Baghdad, nearly always on screen during the nighttime hours in case the bombs start dropping once again.
The next concentric circle comprises the Big Three network-news operations, whose newscasts — with a total of some 30 million viewers — manage to provide at least some semblance of coherent coverage, or at least as much as can be crammed into a half-hour minus commercials. ABC’s World News Tonight did a particularly good job on Monday, adding to its mix of war news a report on Iraqi civilians injured by US bombs and the looming humanitarian disaster in Basra. (And by the way, there is no excuse for the ongoing wretchedness of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on PBS, with its mind-boggling sucking-up to government officials — I suspect Lehrer would have actually licked the boots of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Tuesday if they hadn’t been separated by a video screen — and its reliance on what might be called official news.)
Next is radio. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as serious commercial radio news anymore. On Tuesday, I heard Rush Limbaugh predict that the irregulars who’ve been battling US and British troops will turn out to be members of Al Qaeda and Hamas. " You wait. Mark my words, " he said, then continued: " Here’s some other news. " Other? News? Fortunately, public radio offers an alternative to such garbage. The newscasts I heard — NPR’s All Things Considered, the BBC World Service, and The World (a collaboration of the BBC, PRI, and Boston’s WGBH Radio) — all offered admirable breadth and depth, better than the all-news channels, and better than the network newscasts, too. On Monday, the BBC reported on how the French, Russian, and Chinese media are covering the war. All Things Considered broadcast a moving commentary by a young woman, an Iraqi immigrant, who was recently questioned by the FBI after speaking out against the war. On Tuesday, The World had a feature on people who are training in Geneva, Switzerland, to become international-aid workers, the vanguard of those who will attempt to put Iraq back together.
In a way that is counterintuitive, though, the war has been a triumph for print — the slower the better. Yes, national papers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have been providing outstanding coverage (the Journal’s story that the White House plans to parcel out reconstruction to politically wired American companies such as Bechtel and Dick Cheney’s old haunt, Halliburton, has been the scoop of the war so far), and their Web sites often provide better access to new information than television. But magazines, even though they’re days behind, have found a way to be relevant as no videophone shot of sand will ever be.
The most important thing I learned this week, for instance, was in Time. Michael Elliott and James Carney reported that in March 2002, our only president stuck his head into a meeting with Condoleezza Rice and three US senators and proclaimed: " Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out. " Has there ever been surer evidence that Bush’s six-month dalliance with the UN was just for show? Newsweek had a fascinating tick-tock on the steps leading up to last Wednesday’s " decapitation " strike, which may or may not have killed Saddam.
This week’s New Yorker is filled with enough context for a week’s worth of reading — Nicholas Lemann on the steps that led to the war, David Remnick on reconstruction, Anthony Lane on Tony Blair, and Jon Lee Anderson on Baghdad in the final days before the war. Here is Anderson’s description of the cast of characters that had gathered toward the end: " The prelude to the war in Iraq attracted many eccentrics to Baghdad, among them a Russian photojournalist who wore a green paratrooper’s outfit and a tall, blond human shield named Gordon Sloan, who was famous for having participated in the Australian version of ‘Big Brother.’ He had been filmed naked in the shower, and was subsequently known as Donkey Boy. "
The New York Review of Books, too, proved its relevance, with a report from Northern Iraq that seethes with intrigue, the resignation letter of a State Department official that seethes with frustration, and a round-up of books on the Middle East and terrorism that leads reviewer Tony Judt to compare the US today to Imperial Germany before World War I — perhaps a bit too much context, but infinitely preferable to another general and another map.
DANNY SCHECHTER knows what’s wrong. In his daily Web log for the Media Channel (www.mediachannel.org), the financially struggling international media-watch Web site that he runs (see " Don’t Quote Me, " News and Features, March 7), Schechter offers a running commentary on what he sees as the banality of mainstream coverage and serves up bits of stuff from off the beaten path. When I asked him what he found particularly bad, he told me, " Virtually everything on Fox, except in those rare minutes when, say, a correspondent tells the truth, as in the reports from Jordan which disclose that the whole population is opposed to war. " He also loathes " the whole groveling uncritical collegial relationship with military advisers. "
So where does Schechter get his news? He says he’s been watching the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — which he can receive in New York, where he’s based — as well as the Globalvision News Network (www.gvnews.net, started recently by his long-time business partner, Rory O’Connor), and two British newspapers, the Guardian and the Independent (particularly its correspondent Robert Fisk, much hated among pro-war types).
Stephen Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and a former editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, has been paying close attention to NBC News ( " Tom Brokaw ... is still the best in the business at coordinating and making sense of a breaking story " ), John Burns’s dispatches in the Times ( " well-written and interesting to read on life in a city under attack " ), and the Associated Press’s photos ( " the old guys know how to do it when everything is on the line " ).
Jerry Lanson, who chairs the journalism department at Emerson College and who wrote a commentary piece for the Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday arguing for US networks to air Al-Jazeera’s footage of the American POWs ( " War is hell, and unless we see that with some regularity when it’s being fought, we may well make the mistake of pursuing it over and over again " ), has been reading the New York Times " for its thoroughness, " listening to the BBC, " which looks critically at US coverage, " and watching CNN " for a solid job of keeping up with developments and headlines. "
FAIR’s Steve Rendall recommends several independent media outlets, especially CommonDreams.org, a clearinghouse for liberal and left news and commentary. BU’s Bob Zelnick says he’s been watching everything and reading the Times, " which has been all over the story with compelling reports. " UVA’s Larry Sabato has been watching " too much TV " — " even C-SPAN " — but likes to contrast the skepticism of ABC’s Peter Jennings with Fox, which " is openly rooting for the coalition forces. "
There’s a torrent of news rushing by, and you’ve only got a thimble. On Monday, I started making a list of angles that a reasonably well-informed person needs to keep track of: is Saddam dead? ... the humanitarian crisis in Southern Iraq ... the Al-Jazeera video of the POWs ... the ongoing tension between the Turks and the Kurds ... civilian deaths from US bombing ... the unexpected resistance encountered by American and British troops ... the worldwide protest movement ... Russia’s alleged sale of military technology to Iraq ... the frayed relations between the US and its erstwhile friends France and Germany ... the reaction of the Arab world. That list is by no means complete.
Jim Kelly never really answered Jon Stewart’s question. But the fact is that you’re not going to get much context by sitting in front of a television set hour after hour. Turn on the radio, especially public radio. Read — not just newspapers, but the Web sites of the international press and quality magazines.
This is not a simple story. But the truth — make that the truths — are out there.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com