Friday, April 27, 2007
Since the Moyers show, I have been thinking of many things that happened during that intense period in 2002 and 2003 when the political and media establishment seemed to lose its collective mind (again) and took this country into an inexplicable and unnecessary war. As tristero notes below, the story is long and complicated and it will take years to put it all together, if it ever happens.
I was reminded of one episod, after the invasion, that came as big surprise to me because it came from an unexpected source. And it was one of those stories that was clearly a cautionary tale for any up and coming members of the media who valued their jobs.
On 9/11 those of us who were lucky enough not to be in Manhattan sat glued to our television sets and watched a star being born. Here's how the Wikipedia described it:
On September 11, 2001, Ashleigh Banfield was reporting from the streets of Manhattan, where she was nearly suffocated from the debris cloud from the collapsing World Trade Center. Banfield continued reporting, even as she rescued a NYPD officer, and with him, fled to safety into a streetside shop. After the initial reporting of the tragedy had ended, Banfield received a promotion, as MSNBC sent her around the world as the producer of a new program, A Region in Conflict.
A Region in Conflict was broadcast mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, generally considered locations unfriendly to Westerners. To report day-to-day local stories in that area of the world, she sometimes used her Canadian citizenship to provide access where Americans might not be welcome. She would read viewer e-mails on-air, sometimes without reviewing them beforehand, to avoid bias.
During the conflict in Afghanistan, Banfield interviewed Taliban prisoners, and visited a hospital in Kabul. Later entries covered her travels from Jalalabad to Kabul, as well as other experiences in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, she interviewed Father Gregory Rice, a Catholic priest in Pakistan, and an Iraqi woman aiding refugees. While in Afghanistan, Banfield darkened her blonde hair in order to be less obviously a foreigner.
I made terrible fun of Banfield. She seemed to me to be the personification of the infotainment industrial complex, a reporter better known for her stylish spectacles and blond highlights than her journalistic skills. She was their girl hero, a Jessica Lynch of TV news, constructed out of whole cloth in the marketing department of MSNBC. But I was wrong about her. It's true that she was a cable news star who was created out of the rubble of 9/11, but her reporting that day really was pretty riveting. Her stories from Afghanistan were often shallow, but no more than any of the other blow dried hunks they dispatched over there, and they were sometimes better. Still, she symbolized for me the media exploitation of 9/11 and the War on Terror Show and I was unforgiving.
But very shortly after the invasion of Iraq --- even before Codpiece Day --- Banfield delivered a speech that destroyed her career. She was instantly demoted by MSNBC and fired less than a year later.
Do you remember what she said?
Ashleigh Banfield Landon Lecture
Kansas State University
April 24, 2003
...I suppose you watch enough television to know that the big TV show is over and that the war is now over essentially -- the major combat operations are over anyway, according to the Pentagon and defense officials -- but there is so much that is left behind. And I'm not just talking about the most important thing, which is, of course, the leadership of a Middle Eastern country that could possibly become an enormous foothold for American and foreign interests. But also what Americans find themselves deciding upon when it comes to news, and when it comes to coverage, and when it comes to war, and when it comes to what's appropriate and what's not appropriate any longer.
I think we all were very excited about the beginnings of this conflict in terms of what we could see for the first time on television. The embedded process, which I'll get into a little bit more in a few moments, was something that we've never experienced before, neither as reporters nor as viewers. The kinds of pictures that we were able to see from the front lines in real time on a video phone, and sometimes by a real satellite link-up, was something we'd never seen before and were witness to for the first time.
And there are all sorts of good things that come from that, and there are all sorts of terrible things that come from that. The good things are the obvious. This is one more perspective that we all got when it comes to warfare, how it's fought and how tough these soldiers are, what the conditions are like and what it really looks like when they're firing those M-16s rapidly across a river, or across a bridge, or into a building.
So for that element alone it was a wonderful new arm of access that journalists got to warfare. Perhaps not that new, because we all knew what it looked like at Vietnam and what a disaster that was for the government, but this did put us in a very, very close line of sight to the unfolding disasters.
That said, what didn't you see? You didn't see where those bullets landed. You didn't see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage-? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid oaf horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that.
I can't tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you've got to be on both sides. You've got to be a unilateral, someone who's able to cover from outside of both front lines, which, by the way, is the most dangerous way to cover a war, which is the way most of us covered Afghanistan. There were no front lines, they were all over the place. They were caves, they were mountains, they were cobbled, they were everything. But we really don't know from this latest adventure from the American military what this thing looked like and why perhaps we should never do it again. The other thing is that so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason.
That just seems to be a trend of late, and l am worried that it may be a reflection of what the news was and how the news coverage was coming across. This was a success, it was a charge it took only three weeks. We did wonderful things and we freed the Iraqi people, many of them by the way, who are quite thankless about this. There's got to be a reason for that. And the reason for it is because we don't have a very good image right now overseas, and a lot of Americans aren't quite sure why, given the fact that we sacrificed over a hundred soldiers to give them freedom.
All they know is that we're crusaders. All they know is that we're imperialists. All they know is that we want their oil. They don't know otherwise. And I'll tell you, a lot of the people I spoke with in Afghanistan had never heard of the Twin Towers and most of them couldn't recognize a picture of George Bush.
That will be a very interesting story to follow in the coming weeks and months, as to how this vacuum is filled and how we go about presenting a democracy to these people when -- if we give them democracy they probably will ask us to get out, which is exactly what many of them want.
As a journalist I'm often ostracized just for saying these messages, just for going on television and saying, "Here's what the leaders of Hezbullah are telling me and here's what the Lebanese are telling me and here's what the Syrians have said about Hezbullah. Here's what they have to say about the Golan Heights." Like it or lump it, don't shoot the messenger, but invariably the messenger gets shot.
We hired somebody on MSNBC recently named Michael Savage. Some of you may know his name already from his radio program. He was so taken aback by my dare to speak with Al -Aqsa Martyrs Brigade about why they do what they do, why they're prepared to sacrifice themselves for what they call a freedom fight and we call terrorism. He was so taken aback that he chose to label me as a slut on the air. And that's not all, as a porn star. And that's not all, as an accomplice to the murder of Jewish children. So these are the ramifications for simply being the messenger in the Arab world.
How can you discuss, how can you solve anything when attacks from a mere radio flak is what America hears on a regular basis, let alone at the government level? I mean, if this kind of attitude is prevailing, forget discussion, forget diplomacy, diplomacy is becoming a bad word.
When I said the war was over I kind of mean that in the sense that cards are being pulled from this famous deck now of the 55 most wanted, and they're sort of falling out of the deck as quickly as the numbers are falling off the rating chart for the cable news stations. We have plummeted into the basement in the last week. We went from millions of viewers to just a few hundred thousand in the course of a couple of days.
Did our broadcasting change? Did we get boring? Did we all a sudden lose our flair? Did we start using language that people didn't want to hear? No, I think you've just had enough. I think you've seen the story, you've' seen how it ended, it ended pretty well in most American's view; it's time to move on.
What's the next big story? Is it Laci Peterson? Because Laci Peterson got a whole lot more minutes' worth of coverage on the cable news channels in the last week than we'd have ever expected just a few days after a regime fell, like Saddam Hussein.
I don't want to suggest for a minute that we are shallow people, we Americans. At times we are, but I do think that the phenomenon of our attention deficit disorder when it comes to watching television news and watching stories and then just being finished with them, I think it might come from the saturation that you have nowadays. You cannot walk by an airport monitor, you can't walk by most televisions in offices these days, in the public, without it being on a cable news channel. And if you're not in front of a TV you're probably in front of your monitor, where there is Internet news available as well.
You have had more minutes of news on the Iraq war in just the three-week campaign than you likely ever got in the years and years of network news coverage of Vietnam. You were forced to wait for it till six o'clock every night and the likelihood that you got more than about eight minutes of coverage in that half hour show, you probably didn't get a whole lot more than that, and it was about two weeks old, some of that footage, having been shipped back. Now it's real time and it is blanketed to the extent that we could see this one arm of the advance, but not where the bullets landed.
But I think the saturation point is reached faster because you just get so much so fast, so absolutely in real time that it is time to move on. And that makes our job very difficult, because we tend to leave behind these vacuums that are left uncovered. When was the last time you saw a story about Afghanistan? It's only been a year, you know. Only since the major combat ended, you were still in Operation Anaconda in not much more than 11 or 12 months ago, and here we are not touching Afghanistan at all on cable news.
There was just a memorandum that came through saying we're closing the Kabul bureau. The Kabul bureau has only been staffed by one person for the last several months, Maria Fasal, she's Afghan and she wanted to be there, otherwise I don't think anyone would have taken that assignment. There's just been no allotment of TV minutes for Afghanistan.
And I am very concerned that the same thing is about to happen with Iraq, because we're going to have another Gary Condit, and we're going to have another Chandra Levy and we're going to have another Jon Benet, and we're going to have another Elizabeth Smart, and here we are in Laci Peterson, and these stories will dominate. They're easy to cover, they're cheap, they're fast, you don't have to send somebody overseas, you don't have to put them up in a hotel that's expensive overseas, and you don't have to set up satellite time overseas. Very cheap to cover domestic news. Domestic news is music news to directors' ears.
But is that what you need to know? Don't you need to know what our personality is overseas and what the ramifications of these campaigns are? Because we went to Iraq, according to the President, to make sure that we were going to be safe from weapons of mass destruction, that no one would attack us. Well, did everything all of a sudden change? The terror alert went down. All of a sudden everything seems to be better, but I can tell you from living over there, it's not.
There was a reporter in the New York Times a couple days ago at the Pentagon. It was a report on the ground in Iraq that the Americans were going to have four bases that they would continue to use possibly on a permanent basis inside Iraq, kind of in a star formation, the north, the south, Baghdad and out west. Nobody was able to actually say what these bases would be used for, whether it was forward operations, whether it was simple access, but it did speak volumes to the Arab world who said, "You see, we told you the Americans were coming for their imperialistic need. They needed a foothold, they needed to control something in central and west Asia to make sure that we all next door come into line."
And these reports about Syria, well, they may have been breezed over fairly quickly here, but they are ringing loud still over there. Syria's next. And then Lebanon. And look out lran.
So whether we think it's plausible or whether the government even has any designs like that, the Arabs all think it's happening and they think it's for religious purposes for the most part.
I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I'm very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people's opinions. It was very sanitized.
It had a very brief respite from the sanitation when Terry Lloyd was killed, the ITN, and when David Bloom was killed and when Michael Kelley was killed. We all sort of sat back for a moment and realized, "God, this is ugly. This is hitting us at home now. This is hitting the noncombatants." But that went away quickly too.
This TV show that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there's nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do.
War is ugly and it's dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It's a dangerous thing to propagate.
There is another whole phenomenon that's come about from this war. Many talk about it as the Fox effect, the Fox news effect. I know everyone of you has watched it. It's not a dirty little secret. A lot of people describe Fox as having streamers and banners coming out of the television as you're watching it cover a war. But the Fox effect is very concerning to me.
I'm a journalist and I like to be able to tell the story as I see it, and I hate it when someone tells me I'm one-sided. It's the worst I can hear. Fox has taken so many viewers away from CNN and MSNBC because of their agenda and because of their targeting the market of cable news viewership, that I'm afraid there's not a really big place in cable for news. Cable is for entertainment, as it's turning out, but not news.
I'm hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.
Well, all of this has to do with what you've seen on Fox and its successes. So I do urge you to be very discerning as you continue to watch the development of cable news, and it is changing like lightning. Be very discerning because it behooves you like it never did before to watch with a grain of salt and to choose responsibly, and to demand what you should know.
That's it. I know that there's probably a couple questions. No one's allowed to ask about my hair color, okay? I'm kidding, if you want to ask you can. It's a pretty boring story. But I just wanted to say thank you, and let's all pray and hope in any way that you pray or hope for peace and for democracy around the world, and for more rain this summer in Manhattan. Thank you all.
She may have been hoping for a future in able news, but you can't help but feel she knew she wouldn't after delivering those remarks. (Read the whole thing at the link if you're interested in a further scathing critique of the government.)
Perhaps someone with more stature than Banfield could have gotten away with that speech and maybe it might have even been taken seriously, who knows? But the object lesson could not have been missed by any of the ambitious up and comers in the news business. If a TV journalist publicly spoke the truth anywhere about war, the news, even their competitors --- and Banfield spoke the truth in that speech --- their career was dead in the water. Even the girl hero of 9/11 (maybe especially the girl hero of 9/11) could not get away with breaking the CW code of omerta and she had to pay.
She's now a co-anchor on a Court TV show.
digby 4/27/2007 07:58:00 AM