Kicking Cable

What do you need from TV in wartime?

There are mystery agents in Iraq. Would that we could find out what they are from the national science mastermind, but Chemical Ali is dead. Instead, Judy Woodruff on CNN turned to Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert, who explained that the new stash (found in muddy drums near Karbala) led her to speak out because it seems like “the real deal”—blistering, paralyzing toxins. Why else would this stuff be buried in bunkers? But we’ll have to wait until the tests come back.

So went Monday, which was, until 9 p.m. ET, a long, enervating news drought. At 9 p.m.—5 a.m. Tuesday Baghdad time—reports began to break that U.S. airstrikes may have hit Saddam and sons, but by then disciples of war TV had blown the whole day. From sunup to sundown, we’d gotten only spotty news, infused, as usual, with exhausting false urgency. As they have every day during the war, each channel issued a tacit agenda with a series of presumably pressing questions. The agenda could just as well have been given in prose and still photographs since the virtues of television, sound and moving pictures, are so rarely exploited. Instead, like tutors running flashcards, reporters and anchors ran down a series of questions while headlines explained what would be on the test. Are those canisters filled with chemical weapons? (Maybe.) Who shot that Russian convoy? (We hope we didn’t.) How’s Chemical Ali? (Dead.) How much work do coalition forces have left to do? (A lot.) Will the United Nations play a role in the immediate future of Iraq? (Not really.)

For hours, the anchors consulted generals and experts, phrasing and rephrasing these questions. They fought valiantly to pique our interest, but they refused to change the subject, and the minute the scientist-experts lost steam on the subject of the possible chemical weapons, the reliable loudmouths were trotted out.

“SMOKING GUN?” appeared on Fox, which seems fervently to want those suspicious canisters to be brimming with poison. But Neil Cavuto didn’t need any more evidence. The gas masks soldiers found, the preliminary tests—he’s persuaded. In fact, he says, a truckful of sarin with an Iraqi postmark could be driven to a peace march, and the peaceniks would say he planted it! Because their heads are up their butts!

CNN ran down the implications of the discovery outside Karbala. If the powder is sarin, then Iraq does have chemical weapons, and the war is justified. If it’s not, the war’s still OK. As of Monday, 58 percent of Americans think the war’s right whether or not Iraq has chemical weapons.

In brief breaks from the drama of the canisters, MSNBC, following Fox, aired and re-aired the Robin Leach-style tour of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, now ostentatiously seized. (“The detail on some of the paneling is magnificent. … ornate tile work … gold taps there in the shower unit … pure, sheer opulence.”) Fox made fun of the Iraqi information minister (who—hee hee—still says Baghdad’s free of Americans). Mini-bios were given for the latest American dead. Iraqi soldiers were said to be deserting in Baghdad. Quick takes were given on the Bush-Blair meeting in Northern Ireland.

But the chemicals outside Karbala kept drawing everyone back. Are they pesticides? Are they liquid death? We’ll have to wait for more and more tests—tests that may take a while. The war may be over when the results come back. And until then, we’ll get nothing but the day’s agenda. And then, every now and then, news will break—like news of the Baghdad airstrike Monday night—and it will take only a minute to relay.

Until the war’s over, cable news will supply plenty of tea-leaf readings, all presented in a series of loops, and they’ll track the play-within-a-play lives of the embedded reporters. But by focusing almost exclusively on the war, they’re stuck hyping fake stories, letting too many of their news desks atrophy, and failing to produce the soft news at which they’re especially adept. Having watched news nearly wall-to-wall since the war started, I’ve decided to give up cable. I don’t mind the PlayStation graphic schemes, or even the hearty shouts of Cavuto or Chris Matthews, but I can’t stand having wire reports turned into feature stories and five or six bullet points stretched into 24 hours. Five points is what network news is for, and ABC, NBC, and CBS still provide the best anthology of the day’s most significant images. If you crave more (as I do), check out Page One on the Discovery-Times channel every night at 10 p.m.; it’s a three-minute preview of the front page of the next day’s New York Times. That program, which is the jewel of the excellent (and recently renamed) channel, gives headlines along with scrupulous attention to the latest war photography. That—and a lot of fresh air—may be all you need.