Wednesday, Nov. 19
$ After he flew back to Baghdad on Thursday, Nov. 13, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III got on the Sunday talk circuit to explain the Bush administration’s timetable for turning authority in Iraq over to the Iraqis-and to attempt to counteract the appearance of quagmire syndrome.
At his last appearance, on CNN’s Late Edition , Mr. Bremer-the Bush-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority-took a parting shot at network television, blaming the news business for transmitting overly gloomy images to American viewers. The saturation coverage of near-daily bombings, helicopter crashes and terrorist attacks, he told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, was the result of a fundamental flaw in news-gathering organizations.
“It is a, I think, a structural deformation of the news that bad news is what makes news,” he said.
Until Mr. Bremer explained it, no one had pegged the news business’ problems on “structural deformation.”
“That’s his opinion, but news is the un usual,” countered Larry Doyle, the Baghdad bureau chief for CBS News. “Unfortunately, the Red Cross building blowing up is slightly more unusual than another school opening somewhere in the country.
“I can understand their frustration, almost, because they don’t understand what we do for a living. But if they accuse us of news-management manipulation, they need to look directly into the mirror and address themselves and say, ‘Well, what are we doing?'”
As The Observer reported on Nov. 12, Mr. Bremer and the coalition are planning to correct that “structural deformation” by establishing their own structural formation, a broadcast feed with the capacity to beam the C.P.A.’s version of events, live from Baghdad, 24 hours a day via satellite. The C.P.A.’s senior media adviser, former ABC News producer Dorrance Smith, dubbed it “C-SPAN Baghdad” and compared it to the CentCom broadcasts during military operations last spring. But unlike those briefings, these will be shot with government-owned equipment and paid for by the Pentagon’s $87 billion budget for military operations and Iraqi reconstruction.
Mr. Blitzer asked Mr. Bremer point-blank if a taxpayer-funded broadcast of “good news” violated Cold War–era State Department laws against propaganda, à la the Voice of America.
“We’re not going to break any laws, Wolf,” said Mr. Bremer. “We’re going to use all the media that are available to us-print and film-to get the good-news stories back to the American people. There’s a lot of good news here.”
But what will Mr. Bremer’s broadcast of “good-news stories” from a government institution mean? wondered one TV news exec.
“What does he say on Saturday at 4 in the morning when the helicopters crash? How do they handle that?” asked Paul Slavin, the senior vice president of ABC News. “‘We’d rather not talk about the largest loss of life in the war, we’d rather talk about children’s programs’? I mean, wait a minute ….
“Any information we can get to contend with this very difficult story can only be viewed as a good thing,” Mr. Slavin added. “If they start restricting access to network information, that will be a bad thing.”
What will get beamed through Bagh-SPAN won’t be clear for a week or two. But the Bush administration is fighting a two-way conflict-the conflict on the ground and the fight for American support. It’s also a fight for Mr. Bush’s political positioning, and as a result, the White House-and the C.P.A.-are making an effort to beam live news conferences and one-on-one interviews directly with local affiliates, bypassing the networks.
One C.P.A. official said it had less to do with the quality of network coverage and more with convenient access for the locals-in essence, appealing directly to independent stations in fly-over country. As it stands, the official explained, “it’s like your articles would have to come directly from The New York Times . Print reporters don’t understand the position that the local affiliates are in. An anchor in Denver has no ability to talk to anyone at C.P.A. on the camera. They can do it with the Secretary of Labor … but they can’t do it with anyone here.”
But that still didn’t explain why the impulse to focus on a helicopter crash is a “deformation” in the structure of a news division.
C.P.A. officials declined to elaborate on Mr. Bremer’s comment.
But Mr. Doyle said that in the six weeks he had been in Baghdad, relations between the press and the C.P.A. had grown “adversarial,” with the coalition exerting more and more control over information. He recalled an incident about three weeks ago, in which Mr. Smith announced that TV cameras would no longer be allowed at the daily 3 p.m. briefings. Those briefings, which usually featured C.P.A. spokesman Charles Heatley and Lt. Colonel George Krivo, remain on the record, but with rare exception can’t be recorded by cameras.
“Last week they told us we could bring a camera and we could shoot the first five minutes, and the rest was off the record,” Mr. Doyle said. “Very strange. They build a lot of flex into their rules, but they don’t tell us.”
A C.P.A. spokesperson denied that cameras had been banned from the afternoon briefings, recounting a number of recent on-camera events and saying that Mr. Smith not only didn’t know Mr. Doyle, but wasn’t in Baghdad three weeks ago.
Regardless of the timeline, Mr. Doyle recalled a heated exchange with Mr. Smith-his first and only exchange with him, he said-in which he told the media adviser: “You know what we do for a living. It’s not good for us to sit in there and just quote the guy.” In response, he said, Mr. Smith “got into a lot of gobbledygook about ‘That’s how it’s done in the White House.'”
Mr. Doyle insisted that cameras were almost always present in White House briefings, but “the conversation dissolved into ‘Well, that’s what we’re going to do here.’ They don’t make it easy.”
Mr. Doyle didn’t know at the time that Mr. Smith was planning to roll out his own press-briefing broadcast. Said Mr. Doyle, only half-jokingly, “Well, good-that will give us more time to go out and cover the bad news.”
In any case, the administration’s argument that there’s more good news in Iraq than is reported by the networks has a flip side: On Nov. 14, NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Tom Brokaw told Gloria Borger on CNBC’s Capital Report that, relative to the daily violence occurring in Iraq, his news broadcast was mercifully limited in how it elaborated on death tolls.
“We can’t cover them all,” Mr. Brokaw said of individual casualties, “but that goes back to what the administration has been complaining about when they say that the evening news is not reporting in proportion to what is going on. The fact is that we’re not reporting every death either, or every attack that occurs. We’re really reporting those dramatic events like helicopters going down and other raids. But, you know, there are now up to 30 to 35 attacks a day. Very few of those get on the evening news.”
Whether Mr. Bremer’s efforts to get affiliates to cover the small victories of nation building will turn public opinion is another matter entirely. Mr. Slavin said he welcomed free information and open access to government officials, but he was skeptical of the White House’s strategy so far. “They wanted to get their message out in a less varnished fashion,” he said. “The presumption is a little misguided. I don’t know how valuable that is to the administration.” Mr. Slavin said that he thought the people who operate the affiliates “are far more sophisticated than Mr. Smith thinks.”
Tonight, Mr. Brokaw does his best to deliver the deformation news. [NBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]
Thursday, Nov. 20
& Tonight, Peter Jennings will put to rest all the conspiracies surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the aptly titled special investigation, Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination-Beyond Conspiracy .
But when NYTV called him up, Mr. Jennings wouldn’t tell us what his findings were.
“Not possible. We refuse,” he said. “Use red-hot pokers!”
He said that we had to wait until the show aired to find out. But the title is Beyond Conspiracy , so that must mean that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, right? Case closed, as Gerald Posner said?
“I hope we don’t give the impression of being coy about it,” said Mr. Jennings, “because that would not be very professional.”
Mark Obenhaus, the show’s co–executive producer, said it would go to great lengths to undo the damage done by the conspiratorial 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK . Mr. Jennings didn’t just blame Mr. Stone for convincing 80 percent of all Americans that a conspiracy was at work.
“The reason we’re so into conspiracy theories is the government’s fault in a very profound way,” he said.
But there’s just one little problem with Mr. Jennings digging so deeply into these dark matters, according to e-mail-happy conspiracists: “Mark sends me e-mails every day explaining to me that we are now part of the conspiracy,” he said.
Explained Mr. Obenhaus: “We’re C.I.A. dupes, because they threatened to take Peter’s citizenship away.”
Sounds reasonable to us.
Case reopened! [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]
Friday, Nov. 21
5 We at NYTV often watch VH1’s I Love the 80’s series and wonder: How is it possible that Michael Ian Black can sit in a studio, recall a song from 1983, and start singing lines from it in perfect key to the actual song being dubbed over the segment? They must be singing along to a recording, or have a hidden earpiece playing in their ear, right? There must be a Super-Secret Formula!
“It’s pure felicity when they hit the note right,” insisted Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer.
We don’t believe it, but whatever. How did those Punky Brewsters, the Donnas, remember specific episodes of the 1985 cartoon Jem! Don’t the producers send them all the talking points beforehand?
“No, what we do send is an information packet, and in some cases a clip reel, to some of the major pundits ahead of time,” he said.
They call them “pundits”?
“I could use the TV term ‘talent,’ but then you’d make fun of me,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “‘Scholars,’ let’s say.”
So how many more of these retro-nostalgia spin-offs can VH1 possibly pump out?
“It’s all part of a sensibility that we are eager to apply to music and pop culture,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “An irreverent but loving take on pop culture, based on a shared experience of childhood and youth and adolescence.”
Sounds like Modern Maturity .
” Modern Maturity , published in Williamsburg,” he said. Ew. [VH1, 19, 8 p.m.]
Saturday, Nov. 22
$ Tonight on Saturday Night Live , Britney Spears puts on funny wigs and reads cue cards-but she’s only the musical guest. Halle Berry hosts. Didn’t we see this one before?
Only two more weeks until Al Sharpton hits Studio 8H. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 24
On Nov. 14, former Vice President and would-be media mogul Al Gore said that TV “does not lend itself most readily to the conveyance of complex ideas about self-governance …. Instead, it pushes toward a lowest common denominator.”
Come home, Al!
Tonight, the Democratic Presidential candidates’ duke it out yet again in another of interminable game-show debate-but Punk’d with Ashton Kutcher is also on! [MSNBC, 43, 9 p.m.; MTV, 20, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, Nov. 25
Did everyone catch the lavish photo spread of the Fox News crew in Vanity Fair this month? It’s Roger Ailes and the gang sitting around in an average Middle American living room, munching on popcorn and watching Fox News.
But, say, what’s that dead animal lying on a pillow in the lower left-hand corner, next to Shepard Smith’s feet?
“It’s one of those things my mother used to wear in the 1960’s,” explained Beth Kseniak, a spokesperson for the magazine. “It’s one of those fox stoles that people wore around their shoulders.”
But do people usually keep literal metaphors lying around the house like that?
Bill O’Reilly, what’s your metaphor? And where do you keep it? [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]