Essential and Invisible to the Eye
Michael Tucker (of Gunners Palace) has started blogging again and will be heading back to Iraq in a fortnight. He recently attended a Directors Guild of America discussion on how Iraq should be depicted in fiction such as in JAG or ER and was struck by the absurdity of the subject.
At risk of sounding like a TV critic, I can say that it was odd sitting in an airconditioned theatre watching fictional representations of a subject that is so close to me--knowing that in two weeks I'd be back in Baghdad. At the same time, I realized that in this war, like in any other, fiction will play an important role is shaping perceptions of the conflict. Will we get it right? Only time will tell.
Except that it isn't absurd. For most people, the depiction of war is all they will ever know of it. Fiction will be their reality. Because it is so important, one of the issues Hollywood is wrestling with is how to portray Iraq without discussing it. Tucker quotes a Hollywood Reporter story "about a WGA moderated event in LA entitled 'Televison Goes to War' hosted by Michael Kinsley".
Panel moderator Michael Kinsley, editorial and opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times, suggested that the lack of explicit discussion of the politics of the war in Iraq among the main characters in "Over There" was in and of itself an anti-war statement given the show's gritty portrayal of the chaos and carnage enveloping those grunts. But Bochco and Gerolmo disagreed.
"It seems to me that if we make an overt political statement in 'Over There' about the war ... then immediately the debate becomes not only about policy, but it becomes about our politics, Chris' and mine, as opposed to a discussion or a provocation about the human consequences of war," Bochco said. "The moment we become overtly political, half the audience dismisses us and doesn't pay attention to us because they disagree with our politics. And the other half discuss us ... in the context of our political leanings. And that's just not what my goal is with this show."
Grit and chaos without a neat storyline may be an indictment of war, but Kinsley's logical error is to assume anti-war necessarily means anti-American. Sometimes the bad guy is the enemy and sometimes reality just sucks. Tucker relates a message he got from a friend in-theater in a private email. "Today there were two car bombs explosions in one bus station. I mean who could be there except poor people who can't afford to travel by taxis, buses drivers, or tea sellers. You know what I mean? It just really made me hopeless. I feel that this war made me grow old." The power of documentary coverage -- of journalism in its truest sense -- is that it makes you grow old by narrating events without a script. And maybe that's why Michael Tucker is headed for Iraq: because he wants to see how it will turn out without knowing the ending in advance.
Michael Yon's widely covered interview on radio (hat tip: Greyhawk) repeatedly revolved around the proposition that on-the-ground 'citizen journalists' were necessary to provide a balance to standard press coverage. If Kinsley believed in the necessity to convey reality through fiction, Yon believed in the necessity of keeping fiction from being passed off as reality. Greyhawk flags an incident will illustrates the debate -- the struggle over perception.
From the NY Times, August 15 2005:
Rosemary Goudreau, the editorial page editor of The Tampa Tribune, has received the same e-mail message a dozen times over the last year.
"Did you know that 47 countries have re-established their embassies in Iraq?" the anonymous polemic asks, in part. "Did you know that 3,100 schools have been renovated?"
"Of course we didn't know!" the message concludes. "Our media doesn't tell us!"
Ms. Goudreau's newspaper, like most dailies in America, relies largely on The Associated Press for its coverage of the Iraq war. So she finally forwarded the e-mail message to Mike Silverman, managing editor of The A.P., asking if there was a way to check these assertions and to put them into context. Like many other journalists, Mr. Silverman had also received a copy of the message.
Ms. Goudreau's query prompted an unusual discussion last month in New York at a regular meeting of editors whose newspapers are members of The Associated Press. Some editors expressed concern that a kind of bunker mentality was preventing reporters in Iraq from getting out and explaining the bigger picture beyond the daily death tolls.
"The bottom-line question was, people wanted to know if we're making progress in Iraq," Ms. Goudreau said, and the A.P. articles were not helping to answer that question.
The interesting thing is that the battle for perception would never have occurred without the emergence of a competing meme. For the first time in the history of the mass media, some of the coverage is about the coverage.