Networks comply with whatever U.S. says


ON FRIDAY MORNING, the nation and the world were engulfed in a tidal wave of optimism about a possible end to the war in the Persian Gulf.

That such a surge had almost completely disappeared with barely a ripple remaining by Sunday night is further evidence of the complete compliance of the American media as they search for their stance in covering this war.

Television news sets the country's agenda for major events such as this and, undoubtedly with one eye on the polls expressing overwhelming support for President Bush's actions, the networks continue to go along with whatever the American government says. Friday, the government said that the Iraqi offer was "a cruel hoax," and that settled that.

But just look at this scenario. On Friday morning, Iraq announced its willingness to withdraw, albeit loaded down with numerous clearly unacceptable conditions. Still, for a country in the middle of a war to publicly state that it will essentially surrender, no matter what conditions are put on it, certainly seemed a significant action.

On Saturday, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations stated that those conditions are not prerequisites, but are points of discussion that are subject to further negotiation. On Sunday, the Iraqi foreign minister headed to Moscow to talk further with officials there about the possibility of a settlement.

Now, with all this talking going on, you would think that a television press with the history of aggressiveness would have been pounding American officials with questions as to why the Iraqi offer was rejected so quickly.

Why, when their country seems to be showing a willingness to talk, are we continuing such a relentless air campaign, losing American as well as Iraqi lives? Why don't we consider a pause in the bombing, not one with enough time to allow the Iraqi military to make genuine repairs, but simply a few hours in which there could be the possibility of concrete signs of a movement toward peace? Do we not want a diplomatic solution? Do we prefer a military one, no matter what the cost in lives?

There may well be good answers to all these questions, but the most significant thing about them is that they were not asked, or at least not emphasized by the television coverage of the war over the weekend.

The government continued to show its media savvy by making military officials the only ones available for comments. It was Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney who made the round of talk shows Saturday and Sunday, not Secretary of State James Baker. Beyond that, there were just the generals in the briefings around to give out information.

Though Cheney certainly discussed the Iraqi offer, his presence and that of the generals meant that the emphasis of the coverage was going to be on the military aspects of the situation, not the diplomatic ones. For whatever reason, that's clearly what the United States government wanted. And the networks seemed eager to go along.

After Friday morning's flurry, you didn't hear any newscasts opening up with the diplomatic moves, or with reporters questioning the government's decision to proceed apparently as no talks were taking place.

No, the coverage focused on what has been its mainstay for the last month, a box score of the day's military happenings complete with the latest spectacular video of the coalition's proud smart bombs in action, now accompanied by a passel of stories about the impending ground war. The possibility of negotiations eliminating the need for that bloody possibility was hardly even mentioned.

Most of last night's prime time hour special on the war on NBC -- which came complete with part of a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" that made fun of the press, of all institutions -- could have been written by the Pentagon. That network has apparently given up identifying the reports as being cleared by the U.S. military. It's as if NBC is saying that they're on our side, so they must be telling the truth.

For its part, Iraq is shifting the emphasis of its stabs at media manipulation. At first, that country's officials, while showing damage to non-military sites, were probably under-reporting civilian casualties.

Perhaps this was to avoid frightening its own population -- which clearly isn't that keen on this war if the celebration of its potential end on Friday is to be believed -- and perhaps it was also from some sort of macho stance not to let the other side know that it's doing any harm.

But, with the surge of international sympathy in the wake of the direct hits on a facility that, whatever else it was, was clearly being used as civilian bomb shelter, Iraq is now trumpeting its civilian losses, trying to portray itself as a helpless victim.

It's going to be tough for leopards like Saddam Hussein and crew, who have spent so long projecting an image of bully-like strength, to change their spots so quickly, but they're probably going to try.

And then there are the Soviet image-makers at work, too. Here's a government that sees in the possibility of becoming the peacemakers in the Middle East a foreign policy victory that would take the spotlight off its domestic turmoil. Watch carefully the Russian bear tries to become a lamb right before your eyes.

The networks are more than happy to talk about the attempts by other countries to manipulate their images. But they seem pleased to be manipulated by those in the U.S. government. A free country deserves better.

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