When Saddam Hussein turned to the TV cameras on Thursday, July 1, and proclaimed his court appearance “a theatrical comedy by Bush, the criminal, in an attempt to win the election,” the old state-media-controlling dictator may have become the latest deposed tyrant turned critic.
“You see him jabbing, you see him gesticulating, and the snapshots-they freeze his face in a frown,” said CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, one of three American journalists present in the Baghdad courtroom that day. “And that is not representative of the atmosphere in the court. He was much less aggressive than what it appears.”
Ms. Amanpour, who had been invited to the proceeding by Iraqi officials, said Mr. Hussein had, as reported in print, shown up looking defeated, tired and confused. But she said the newly formed Iraqi Ministry-in close cooperation with the U.S. military-had refused to release a full transcript of the proceeding, or the footage shot by a U.S. military-operated “combat camera” of Mr. Hussein’s chained-up perp walk from the armored bus to the courthouse. (U.S. authorities had originally designated a pool camera to the perp walk, but changed their minds the morning of the hearing, said Ms. Amanpour.)
The result, she said, was that Mr. Hussein came off as an angrier, more self-possessed dictator than she had witnessed in person. “The reality clashed with the video,” she said. “It’s only a partial reflection of the reality because it was only one perspective and one shot.
“So all the public has seen, and all the American press here-the tabloids and the anchors-‘Defiant Saddam Challenges the Court,’ this and that,” she said. “You can mistakenly fit him into your preconceptions or into your tableaux just because you had that one head shot.”
A spokeswoman at the Coalition media center in Baghdad told NYTV that the military footage and transcript would only be released “if the Iraqi judge wants to change the rules.”
But while the judge may be in charge of the rule books, Ms. Amanpour noted that the U.S. controlled and edited the press-pool tapes. “The Iraqis did not have the tapes for the first 24 hours,” she said.
Whether the TV feed was U.S.-crafted propaganda (to make Mr. Hussein seem a worthy antagonist, perhaps) or just self-serving censorship, the TV event showed the power of an image removed from its context.
Michael Moore would have been proud. On Monday, July 21, when NBC’s Today host Katie Couric asked Mr. Moore why his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 had shown an image of an Iraqi child flying a kite in the hours before the U.S. invasion and no images of Mr. Hussein’s brutality-President Bush’s bête noire and ex post facto justification for the war-Mr. Moore replied, “You guys did such a good job of telling us how tyrannical and horrible he was. You already did that.”
The media, he said, had carried the Bush administration’s water in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. He called NBC News’ coverage “propaganda”-and his movie, of course, was the corrective, showing the human price of Mr. Bush’s decision. Mr. Moore said he was only balancing the news.
Remember when right-wing radio foamer Rush Limbaugh convinced a lot of people that the mainstream media slanted news to the left, and offered himself as the corrective? He was only creating a new market opportunity. As network news divisions have lost their fastballs and their separate identities-what is the difference in 2004 between the voices of NBC News, CBS News and ABC News?-the power of partisan bark has gained in effect.
On those terms, Matt Drudge, the right-wing Web gossip and longtime agitator of the left, had to tip his hat to Mr. Moore’s film, and to a mudslinger after his own heart. “I give him major props, as a piece of art. I was filled with steamy jealousy throughout,” he said. But while Mr. Drudge crafted his own right-wing mosaic of American reality out of mere Web links, Mr. Moore was stitching together sound bites and facts on a much larger scale-1,700 motion-picture screens!-and Mr. Drudge was flush with envy.
“This is a totally new level of expertise and skill and cunning,” he said. He even compared Mr. Moore to H.L. Mencken. “I should stress that I’m not endorsing what his premise was-I couldn’t even follow the premise,” he said. “It was more the images and the drama.”
Mr. Drudge said Mr. Moore and he were both lovers of what he called “high jinks.” He was delighted, for instance, with the satellite-feed grabs of Bush administration officials primping before going on TV shows. Mr. Drudge said he’d aired similar video outtakes when he had a program on Fox News, back in 1998. He recalled using images of then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flubbing attempts at speaking in Serbian in several prerecorded takes, and close-ups of Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart’s “twitching eyes.”
“All of it was very familiar to me, and again the makeup scenes were stunning because the larger issue is mocking the establishment,” he said. “Bush was used as a foil. Moore knows this, because he made everybody else look like a jerk.”
Mr. Drudge said Mr. Moore, too, was a master of the directorial lingua franca of the tabloid Zeitgeist : the close-up. “It’s all about the close-up,” he said. “One reason American Idol does so well is the close-up. They announce who lost and they zoom into the eyes! When I saw Moore-even the opening three minutes of the movie-and you see his love of close-up, I said, ‘Aw, he’s got it.’ So you put that with a Harvey Weinstein campaign ad and you’re good to go. Palm d’Or, baby!”
From here on out, said Mr. Drudge, there are only two things that will separate the two-bit muckraker from the big-time propagandists: money and access. And Mr. Drudge insisted that Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein was the real story behind the success of Mr. Moore’s movie.
“While Roger Ailes is powerful-and boy is he good at what he does-he cannot launch a movie in Cannes,” said Mr. Drudge. “At least not as of this moment.”
Mr. Drudge was not concerned with the loss of objectivity in the news; it’s not something terribly important in the scheme of history. “Nixon said history belongs to those who write it,” said Mr. Drudge. “That’s what it is. You see things through your own prism. I feel what I do on the Internet is just one guy’s outlook in the world.”
In essence, Mr. Drudge described a future in which information and facts were so much fodder-ammo, really-for an all-out partisan war, in which objectivity had no meaning, and everyone has retreated to a heavily financed political silo, battening down the hatches and lobbing burning ideological fagots into the media ozone.
Actually, he seemed to be describing the present.
And so here we are, propaganda as Orwell described it, all war all the time, from Fox to Fahrenheit . As any cable-TV producer will tell you, market the extremes to the middle. Never before have entertainment and politics and news been so merged, fused, confused, mixed-up and otherwise interchangeable.
R.J. Cutler, the producer of the 1993 campaign documentary The War Room , about Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, said that one of the effects of the TV era was a more sophisticated bending of truth among those in seats of power.
“What complicates it now is that at this point, if you look at Condoleezza Rice on the Toda y show and you take her at her word when she says something, it’s almost like you’re naïve,” he said. “It’s your own fault if you’re not a sophisticated-enough viewer. To that extent, the blurring, the distance between the word and its meaning, has grown very far apart. And that’s something that television has accelerated dramatically. And, of course, that’s been exploited by those who are controlling the message out of government administrations.”
Mr. Cutler is currently producing a political reality show for Showtime called American Candidate , which will feature 12 contestants in a simulation of a Presidential campaign, each running for office, with one of the hurdles being a media press conference. Among the contestants will be Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt. Mr. Cutler said that President Reagan’s media guru Mike Deaver-who later produced HBO’s K Street , the quasi-reality show that mixed up actors with real-life politicians in an entertainment-news fusion-had perfected the video image as bludgeoning device against reality in the 1980’s.
“Deaver didn’t start it with K Street , Deaver started it with Reagan,” said Mr. Cutler. “Deaver started it by sending Ronald Reagan to a senior citizen’s home so that the photo op of the day was Reagan eating lunch with the elderly the same day he was signing legislation diminishing government resources available to the elderly. And that was Deaver’s genius. And I wiggle my fingers when I say ‘genius,’ but that was Deaver’s contribution to the blurring of the line.”
As a result, TV viewers have become “both more sophisticated, certainly more cynical,” said Leroy Sievers, the executive producer of Nightline . “I think the polarization in society and in media issues has gotten worse. I fear that the lines are being blurred. My great fear is that people look at us and think we’re doing propaganda anyway, on a news show. Michael Moore is well enough known that people know he comes at this with an attitude.”
So, are fairness and balance-the real things-doomed?
“Objectivity is a tough thing,” admitted Mr. Sievers. “It’s tough to do in practice because the stories you select involve value judgments-who you put on, how you do it, is a value judgment. The question is: ‘Are you fair, are you balanced?’ Obviously as a company we have standards that are established and we feel we have to hold to. We can be held accountable. If we make a mistake, you know where to find us. Individual documentaries in the theaters are in a slightly different world. They stand alone. You can like it or not, they can be accurate or not. Certainly not all of them claim to be objective. I’m not sure the public holds them to different standards. When people say, ‘I saw it on the news,’ they could mean Entertainment Tonight , Nightline , the Today show, 60 Minutes . What people consider news is much wider than what we think. Are people looking to these documentaries and holding them to the same standards? I’m not sure they are.”
After the 40-year anomaly of a mainstream society-with the monolithic idea of objective news beamed through three TV channels- The New Yorker ‘s film critic David Denby saw Mr. Moore as a phenomenon that harks back to the 18th century.
“Michael Moore is neither a political thinker nor a journalist,” he said. “What he is is the modern descendent of the scurrilous pamphleteers during the Revolutionary War who were attacking the British or attacking Thomas Jefferson as an atheist …. They depended heavily on humor, exaggeration, caricature, slander. If you consider him as that, he’s a master. If you consider him as a political thinker, you’re going to come up with garbage.”
But Mr. Drudge, who exults in exaggeration, caricature, slander, was not distressed by this new electronic bullyragging blowhardism. “If it’s not Moore, it’s going to be some kid in his basement putting together the video, and he’ll make a sensation,” he said. “As we head toward the wireless broadband environment, movie streaming is going to be as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s going to be very exciting to see what people do with this. The medium will outlive all of us and our pet issues.”