Friday, November 19, 2004

Bono's New Casualty: 'Private Ryan'

The New York Times
November 21, 2004

Bono's New Casualty: 'Private Ryan'

As American soldiers were dying in Falluja, some Americans back home spent Veteran's Day mocking the very ideal our armed forces are fighting for ­ freedom. Ludicrous as it sounds, 66 ABC affiliates revolted against their own network and refused to broadcast "Saving Private Ryan." The reason: fear. Not fear of terrorism or fear of low ratings but fear that their own government would punish them for exercising freedom of speech.

If the Federal Communications Commission could slap NBC after Bono used an expletive to celebrate winning a Golden Globe, then not even Steven Spielberg's celebration of World War II heroism could be immune from censorship. The American Family Association, which mobilized the mob against "Ryan," was in full blaster-fax and e-mail rage. Its scrupulous investigation had found that the movie's soldiers not only invoked the Bono word 21 times but also, perhaps even more indecently, re-enacted "graphic violence" in the battle scenes. How dare those servicemen impose their filthy mouths and spilled innards on decent American families! In our new politically correct American culture, war is always heck.

The stations that refused to show the movie were not just in Baton Rouge and Biloxi but in cities like Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore. For some reason, a number of them replaced "Ryan" with the 1986 movie "Hoosiers," the heartwarming tale of high school basketball players who claw their way to the championship in 1950's Indiana. But even Indiana and jocks have no immunity from the indecency cops in 2004. Less than 48 hours after "Hoosiers" supplanted the censored "Ryan," the Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Tyler Palko used the Bono word in a live interview with NBC Sports's Tom Hammond after his team's upset of Notre Dame. Unless the F.C.C. wants to open a legal Pandora's box, it now has no choice but to apply the same principles to a victorious football player's spontaneous expletive that it did to a victorious rock star's.

For anyone who doubts that we are entering a new era, let's flash back just a few years. "Saving Private Ryan," with its "CSI"-style disembowelments and expletives undeleted, was nationally broadcast by ABC on Veteran's Day in both 2001 and 2002 without incident, and despite the protests of family-values groups. What has changed between then and now? A government with the zeal to control both information and culture has received what it calls a mandate. Media owners who once might have thought that complaints by the American Family Association about a movie like "Saving Private Ryan" would go nowhere are keenly aware that the administration wants to reward its base. Merely the threat that the F.C.C. might punish a TV station or a network is all that's needed to push them onto the slippery slope of self-censorship before anyone in Washington even bothers to act. This is McCarthyism, "moral values" style.

What makes the "Ryan" case both chilling and a harbinger of what's to come is that it isn't about Janet Jackson and sex but about the presentation of war at a time when we are fighting one. That some of the companies whose stations refused to broadcast "Saving Private Ryan" also own major American newspapers in cities as various as Providence and Atlanta leaves you wondering what other kind of self-censorship will be practiced next. If these media outlets are afraid to show a graphic Hollywood treatment of a 60-year-old war starring the beloved Tom Hanks because the feds might fine them, toy with their licenses or deny them permission to expand their empires, might they defensively soften their news divisions' efforts to present the graphic truth of an ongoing war? The pressure groups that are exercised by Bono and "Saving Private Ryan" are often the same ones who are campaigning to derail any news organization that's not towing the administration line in lockstep with Fox.

Even without being threatened, American news media at first sanitized the current war, whether through carelessness or jingoism, proving too credulous about everything from weapons of mass destruction to "Saving Private Lynch" to "Mission Accomplished." During the early weeks of the invasion, carnage of any kind was kept off TV screens, as if war could be cost-free. Once the press did get its act together and exercised skepticism, it came under siege. News organizations that report facts challenging the administration's version of events risk being called traitors. As with "Saving Private Ryan," the aim of the news censors is to bleach out any ugliness or violence. But because the war in Iraq, unlike World War II, is increasingly unpopular and doesn't have an assured triumphant ending, it must also be scrubbed of any bad news that might undermine its support among the administration's base. Thus the censors argue that Abu Ghraib, and now a marine's shooting of a wounded Iraqi prisoner in a Falluja mosque, are vastly "overplayed" by the so-called elite media.

President Bush tried to turn the campaign, in part, into a referendum on Hollywood's lack of a "heart and soul." Now that he's won, administration apparatchiks have declared his victory a repudiation not just of Hollywood's dream factory but of the news industry's reality factory. "The biggest loser was the mainstream media," wrote Peggy Noonan in an online analysis for The Wall Street Journal after Election Day. She predicted that institutions like the networks, The New York Times and, presumably, the print edition of her own newspaper (editorial page excepted) were on their way to being rendered extinct by "the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet" ­ in other words, by opinion writers like herself.

In this diet of "news" championed by the right, there's no need for actual reporters who gather facts firsthand by leaving their laptops and broadcast booths behind and risking their lives to bear witness to what is actually happening on the ground in places like Falluja and Baghdad. The facts of current events can become as ideologically fungible as the scientific evidence supporting evolution. Whatever comforting version of events supports your politics is the "news."

The reductio ad absurdum of such a restricted news diet is Jim Bunning, the newly re-elected senator from Kentucky. During the campaign he drew a blank when asked to react to the then widely circulated story of an Army Reserve unit in Iraq, including one soldier from his own state, that refused to follow orders to carry out what it deemed a suicide fuel-delivery mission. "I don't read the paper" is how he explained his cluelessness. "I haven't done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information." That's his right as a private citizen, though even Fox had some coverage of that story. But as a senator, he has the power to affect decisions on the conduct of the war and to demand an accounting of the circumstances under which one of his own constituents was driven to revolt against his officers. Instead Mr. Bunning was missing in action.

He is, however, a role model of the compliant citizen the Bush administration wants, both in officialdom and out. In a memorable passage in Ron Suskind's pre-election article on the president in The New York Times Magazine, a senior White House adviser tells Mr. Suskind that there's no longer any need for the "reality-based community" epitomized by journalists. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," the adviser says. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." A test run of this approach dates at least as far back as May 2003, a week after the president declared the end of major combat operations. When a reporter told Donald Rumsfeld in a Pentagon press briefing that "journalists in Iraq report that a sense of public order is still lacking," the secretary of defense ridiculed journalists for showing only "slices of truth." The reconstruction effort, couldn't anyone see, was right on track.

The creation of this alternative reality has been perfected into an art form in Falluja. Almost everything the administration has said about this battle is at odds with the known facts. "There are over 3,000 Iraqi soldiers who are leading the activities," said the now outgoing deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, as the operation began and those Iraqi troops were paraded before the cameras. But as Edward Wong of The Times later reported, the Iraqis actually turned up in battle only after the hard work was done, their uniforms "spotless from not having done a lick of fighting." Meanwhile, another group of crack Iraqi trainees fled their posts in Mosul, allowing the insurgents, and possibly our current No. .1 evildoer, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to wreak havoc there while Americans were chasing their ghosts in Falluja.

Casualties are also now being whipped into an empire's idea of reality. "We don't do body counts," said Tommy Franks as we fought in Afghanistan in 2002 ­ an edict upheld in a press briefing in Iraq as recently as Nov. 9 by the American commander Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz. But only five days later, as the "reality-based" news spread that many of the insurgents had melted away before we got to them, that policy was sacrificed to the cause of manufacturing some good news to drive out the bad. Suddenly there was a body count of 1,200 to 1,600 insurgents in Falluja, even though reporters on the scene found, as The Times reported, "little evidence of dead insurgents in the streets and warrens where some of the most intense combat took place." By possibly inflating both body counts and the fighting prowess of the local army against guerrillas, the Bush administration is constructing a "Mission Accomplished II" that depends on a quiescent press (as well as on a public memory so short that it won't notice the similarity between the Falluja narrative and Tet).

As the crunch comes, we'll learn whether media companies will continue to test such Iraq war stories against "reality-based" reportage, or whether they'll kowtow to an emboldened administration, spurred on by its self-proclaimed mandate and its hard-right auxiliary groups, that can reward or punish them at will. For now the most dominant Falluja image has been that of the "Marlboro Man" ­ the Los Angeles Times photo of the brave American marine James Blake Miller, his face bloodied and soiled by combat, his expression resolute. It is, as Mr. Rumsfeld might say, a slice of truth. But other slices ­ like the airlifting of hundreds of American troops to Germany to be treated for the traumatic fallout of Falluja's graphic violence ­ are, like "Saving Private Ryan" on Veteran's Day, missing from too many Americans' screens.