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.

Memorial Day provides an opportunity not only to honor the dead but also to educate the living—about the true cost of war and how it tends to dehumanize conquerors and conquered alike. It’s a message many Americans don’t want to hear. And, sadly, the networks seem all too willing to go along. 

 

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.