Either it was Saddam—exhausted, swollen, livid, freaked-out—or it was not Saddam. And he was live. Or he was taped. Or—maybe—he was somewhere else, shocked and awed, possibly dead. On Thursday morning, Donald Rumsfeld offered this taciturn take on the ambiguous broadcast: “There is debate about that.”
Two hours after U.S. cruise missiles smashed into Baghdad on Wednesday, a man with a mustache appeared on Iraqi television. He looked familiar. Technicians have since moved to determine the man’s identity, but, in the moment, anchorman Shep Smith, finessing a tough night on Fox News, expressed on-the-fly skepticism. “We are still getting indications from Baghdad that Saddam will address the nation,” he reported. “Whether it will be live, we do not yet know. We will show that, interpret it to the best of our abilities, and allow you to decide, when it comes, what you think of it.” A minute later, Smith pointed to the cartoon “bug” above his own live-action head and announced that, until they knew for sure, the network would revoke that “live” label from the Iraqi broadcast.
Smith’s sense of his place on the crowded screen was impressive. Even more than its competition, Fox News is now jammed with images and text, all of it in flux: Dominating the screen is a small box to the left with a Fox broadcast, mostly from here in America, and a larger one to the right with feeds mostly from the Middle East, chiefly Baghdad and Kuwait. Under these boxes is a red “War Alert” streak announcing the terror alert (high) and the financial indices (down). Under the streak is a bluish zone with an up-to-the-minute headline. To the left of the blue is the time and some branding junk, and finally, at the bottom, runs the unending crawl—the news of which countries don’t support America, which oil wells are on fire, and which missiles are falling where.
Was there a note of competition in Smith’s voice when Fox took back the “live” bug from the broadcast by could-be Saddam? On the first night of war, Iraqi TV was running what may have been stale tapes, and Fox was keeping it live—switching its feed, swapping its graphics, taking nothing on faith.
Up came someone. It didn’t look like Saddam to me. The man, in glasses, did share some of Saddam’s preoccupations: Bush is little and evil, God is great, long live jihad. Then, on Thursday morning, when I saw the man’s photo against one of a more robust and recognizable Saddam, the lines in his face seemed to match. It soon seemed clear that Saddam wasn’t as bold as he used to be. And since he didn’t mention the recent airstrikes in his “live” broadcast—sticking instead to evergreen news of his own glory—the tired Saddam was at least speaking from an earlier hour. A time, it seemed, when he was more confident—or even more alive—than he is now.