Further seeking to showcase its patriotism, CNN touted its own “Warrior One” Hummer. Used by a CNN crew in Iraq, the vehicle had been damaged in an attack, then brought to the U.S. and refurbished. It was being sent around the United States on “a new mission” to raise money for wounded vets. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Warrior One was in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for a Jaycee festival. On hand to greet the locals was CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. Among those inspecting the vehicle was Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman. It “doesn’t much resemble the ones that I have driven in Iraq,” he observed. Yes, Schneider replied, those in Iraq “are special underneath for mine resistance.” No, Bateman informed her, the Humvees in Iraq have no special protection; they’re not strong enough to carry any extra weight underneath. Schneider paid no heed and moved on. “It has been a wonderful experience in Chagrin Falls,” she chirped, “because we have seen a lot of people that are involved with the military that happen to live here or were from here and have stopped by and shared their experiences with us here in front of the CNN Warrior One.” The network seemed determined to put the best face on a wounding and wrenching war.
There were exceptions, though. Anderson Cooper 360°, for instance, offered a harrowing report on Matthew Vargas, a young soldier who had become so depressed after being shot in the chest in Iraq that he deserted his unit. Barricading himself in the garage of his mother’s house, he threatened to kill himself, surrendering only after the house was tear-gassed by the police. Vargas, said his father, “had told me once that he had nothing left to live for anymore, that his country gave up on him, and he felt maybe his family gave up on him, too.” As Anderson Cooper noted, this was an extreme case, but the segment offered a reminder that not every soldier is a smiling hero, that not every parent or spouse can find comfort in comedy or in sending care packages to the troops.
In their defense, TV news producers would no doubt argue that Memorial Day is one day in the year that should be kept free of politics and partisanship—that, as at a funeral, it’s an occasion to celebrate the virtues of the deceased rather than to dwell on darker memories. Yet the Memorial Day coverage was thoroughly political in its own way. The calls to duty, the pleas for healing, the salutes to the mission and the cause—all implicitly sought to cast Iraq as another in a long line of noble wars fought to protect our freedoms and way of life. Mix in the clips of George Bush awarding medals at Arlington Cemetery, of Dick Cheney addressing the graduating class at West Point, of General Peter Pace declaring (on Good Morning America) that “freedom is not free” and that “this is an important fight to take to the enemy,” and you have what amounts to a three-day-long commercial for the war.
The great question in all this is, Why? Why would the networks serve up such mush? One factor, I think, is the general increase in sentimentalism on TV. One need only think of the soppy outpourings at the funerals of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, of NBC’s periodic tributes to the power of faith, of ABC’s lachrymose “Person of the Week” awards to appreciate how thoroughly network news has come to resemble a Hallmark card. Even more significant, though, I believe, is the fear that continues to grip TV newsrooms in the wake of September 11—the fear of being seen as un-American, of being accused of lacking patriotism, of being charged with showing disrespect for the military if one happens to linger too long on the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
As the situation in Iraq has unraveled, and as George Bush’s poll numbers have plunged, the networks (like news organizations in general) have grown bolder in their coverage. Thanks in part to the efforts of ABC’s Bob Woodruff and CBS’s Kimberly Dozier (who was nearly killed while doing a Memorial Day report in Iraq last year) and of intrepid reporting by correspondents like Jane Arraf (NBC), Richard Engel (NBC), and Lara Logan (CBS), the networks have provided much graphic insight into the war’s destructive force and its physical toll on the troops. But there remain too many areas the networks won’t touch. The war on TV remains a largely sanitized affair, untroubled by images of too many fallen GIs, of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded by U.S. troops, of soldiers driven to desperation by the nature of the mission, of families torn apart by grief.