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A different kind of TV war

by Frank Rich Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001 at 1:53 PM

We learned this week that if we can't bring Osama bin Laden to justice dead or alive, the White House can still slap him with that most American form of capital punishment - kicking him off network television. Commentary from the New York Times.

A different kind of TV war

Frank Rich

Monday October 15, 2001

We learned this week that if we can't bring Osama bin Laden to

justice dead or alive, the White House can still slap him with

that most American form of capital punishment - kicking him off

network television.

In her conference call to TV news executives, Condoleezza Rice

asked them to think twice before letting Mr Bin Laden appear

unexpurgated in video again, arguing that Americans must be

shielded from both his propaganda and any coded messages he

might be sending to his operatives. Thus did Ms Rice send the

world three not too effectively coded messages of her own: 1)

that the administration entertains at least a passing fantasy that

al-Qaida, despite its access to both the internet and the Arabic

superstation Al Jazeera (35 million viewers worldwide, 150,000

by dish and cable in the US), can be disrupted by keeping it off

the likes of Fox; 2) that the administration's ambitions to

manage the news know no bounds; and 3) that the White House

was as spooked by Mr Bin Laden's almost instant rebuttal to

George Bush last Sunday as the rest of us were.

The last message, at least, is understandable. This may be a

war "pitting the world's mightiest industrial nation against a cave

dweller," as George Will has put it, but the cave dweller, we

keep being rudely reminded, is no caveman. Through

McLuhanesque savvy, brazen timing and a cunning message,

he upstaged the president of the United States on the day he

sent American troops into battle. "Bin Laden Is Winning the

Propaganda War," read the subsequent headline in The

Guardian, referring to the insidious slickness with which Mr Bin

Laden's address broadened his inflammatory rhetoric to

embrace the Palestinian cause, in which he had previously

shown little interest.

Instead of fighting Mr Bin Laden's hate speech with speech of

his own, Mr Bush's first countermove was to downplay his

importance by dropping his name altogether from public

statements - a strategy upended by Ms Rice's act of three days

later. By Thursday, the president's nemesis was back in full

force. Fear is Mr Bin Laden's weapon of choice, and only hours

before Mr. Bush's commanding primetime press conference, the

fear al-Qaida brought to America was surging again, courtesy of

a stark, unspecific and therefore terrorising FBI alert of new

attacks that the president could neither illuminate nor defuse.

A month after September 11, a week into war, the fear

engendered by Mr Bin Laden and his troops takes forms both

obvious (Cipro now rivals Viagra in sales on the internet) and

not. Among the more subtle displacements of our anxiety has

been the desperate but human effort, by the administration and

everyone else, to tame an uncharted future into predictability by

jamming it into a familiar historical paradigm. Even as Mr Bush

repeatedly - very repeatedly - tells us that we are fighting "a

different kind of war," his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld,

tries to sand down those differences by saying that the fight

against terrorism resembles the cold war.

This may be plausible in terms of duration and some tactics, but

there are, sadly, some riveting distinctions. The Soviet Union,

unlike al-Qaida and its fraternal networks, was identifiable on the

map, not in hiding in 60-plus countries. It never sent four bombs

to wreak mass destruction on New York and Washington. It

didn't have a corps of kamikaze operatives. It was possessed by

a godless ideology, not the blind faith that it was acting

righteously with God's blessing. What in part made Mr Bin

Laden's TV appearance last Sunday unnerving was that it

reminded us how little he resembles Khrushchev and Castro.

We didn't even know for sure where or when he recorded his

video, let alone where he is now. Whatever message he sent to

the Islamic world, the unencoded one he delivered to Americans

is that the war on terrorism is not the cold war but, what

everyone most fears, a leap into the unknown.

Even so, America's New War, as CNN has branded it, is already

whipping up one of the cold war's most self-destructive national

maladies - a will to stifle dissent. Such has been the

disproportionate avalanche of invective about Susan Sontag, Bill

Maher and Noam Chomsky that you'd hardly guess they were a

writer, a late-late-night comic and a linguistics professor -

Americans with less clout and popular standing than a

substitute weatherman on the Today show. Listening to all the

similar overheated rage about pacifists on and off college

campuses, you'd think as well that there was a large and

serious antiwar movement afoot to rival that of the Vietnam 60's.

Reality check: polls show that 94% of Americans support the

war effort.

That the right can whip itself into a rage about an American left

so small and marginalised suggests that it, too, is unhinged by

fear, and can only displace it by a knee-jerk refighting of

yesterday's cold war culture wars. Some conservatives are so

eager to manufacture traitors that they have yet to recognise

that, post-September 11, the leaders of the Democratic Party,

have been more fiercely loyal to the administration's war policy

than the Republicans busy accusing Colin Powell of

appeasement of Saddam. The truth is that the country is as

united as it ever could be, and willing to follow the president

wherever he leads.

Ms Rice's effort to browbeat the networks is doomed - as is Ari

Fleischer's attempt to expand it to newspapers - because no

competitive news organization will cede its editorial process to

the government. Yet it is but one example of what looks like a

major effort by the administration to manage news that in no

way threatens the security of military operations.

Recent days have also brought an unorthodox cancellation of a

daily Pentagon press briefing, a move to replace honest

journalism with propaganda at the Voice of America, a

short-lived effort to cut Congressmen out of the military and

intelligence loop, and the revelation that Karl Rove, the

president's political guru, went so far as to call a historian he'd

never met, Robert Dallek, to lean on him after Mr Dallek

criticised the president in USA Today for delaying his return to

Washington on Sept.11. Mr. Rove tried to sell Mr. Dallek the

false story, later retailed by too many gullible journalists, that

Mr. Bush had been scarce because Air Force One had been

under threat.

That's not the only misleading information put out by the White

House in a single month. Paul O'Neill, the treasury secretary,

tried to cheerlead the stock market by purporting that "our

economy was beginning to rebound before [Sept 11]" - soon to

be flatly contradicted by the pre-Sept 11 rise in unemployment.

When the first anthrax case was reported in Florida, Tommy

Thompson, the health secretary, prematurely announced that

that there was "no other indications anybody else has got

anthrax" and floated the clinically useless factoid that the victim

had been drinking water "out of a stream [while] travelling

through North Carolina." The credibility of official

pronouncements about subsequent anthrax cases has been

under a cloud ever since.

The point of much of this dissembling, like the attempt to banish

Mr Bin Laden from TV, is simple enough: what we don't know

won't hurt us. At his press conference, Mr Bush gave a progress

report on the war to date - and found solid advances on every

single front, without a single setback, not even a minor one, of

any kind. Asked if the American people had to make any

sacrifices for the war effort, the only one he could come up with

was longer lines at the airport. In other words, all the news is

good news. Decide for yourself if that makes you feel safe.

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