Sunday, November 25, 2007

TV: The either or


"Every day that Iraq is not in the news," explained ABC's Martha Raddatz, "is a good day for the president."

Bully Boy must be doing cartwheels. Only more so if he caught Raddatz on PBS' Washington Week. Gwen Ifill asked her if the 'surge' was working and she replied, "Absolutely." Time, like bad lighting, can be very harsh and Raddatz learned both on the program that began airing on PBS stations Friday. On Thursday alone, over 54 deaths would be reported in Iraq. US media has a prejudice against against non-US events so it's no surprise that if it doesn't happen in the Green Zone in Baghdad (aka "Little USA"), it doesn't register on the radar of the domestic mainstream press. On Friday, the day the program began airing, over 30 deaths would be reported and the mainstream media would latch onto the narrative: "Violence Returns to Iraq."

If you haven't already guessed, the violence included the bombing of a pet market in Baghdad on Friday. When it's in their own backyard, even the mainstream can sort-of, kind-of see it, provided they aren't pre-taping.

Raddatz would go on to predict that the White House would soon (once again) "change the terms of success in Iraq" apparently ignoring the fact that she herself had. Possibly her train of thought derailed under the weight of offering 'facts' that weren't. One of the more laughable claims -- a hard prize to award, granted -- was that "they pretty much believe" they've "wiped out" al Qaeda in Iraq. "They"? "They believe"? What of Raddatz? She didn't have an opinion and didn't have any facts at her finger tips.

al Qaeda in Iraq was always a small group. But the underreported attacks on officials in Iraq does include attacks on the US collaborators the Awakening Council and a body count -- forget assassination attempts -- would suggest that al Qaeda is far from over since the Awakening Council's stated purpose for existence is to stamp out al Qaeda in Iraq. al Qaeda in Iraq is better known as al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but Radditz obviously felt the need to dumb down for viewers -- possibly she thought she was appearing on her network's This Week and not Washington Week?

Dumbing down included reducing Iraq to "two sides." The real failure, Raddatz offered, was that there was no news on "bringing the two sides together." Iraq, prior to the start of the illegal war, had a diverse population. Too diverse for the United States to digest -- or so the press thought -- so it was quickly reduced to a region of Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Raddatz apparently feels that those three (oversimplified) categories are one to many thus her reductionary opinions.

It's not as if there isn't still some (international) attention given to other groupings in Iraq. On November 9th, the United Nations issued an alert about the Palestinians trapped in refugee camps on the border between Iraq and Syria. Just yesterday, Pope Benedict made a plea on behalf of the Chaldeans. In the middle of last week, if you searched hard, it was possible to find some attention given to the Mandaens. Others suffering include Iraq's Jewish population which is now largely displaced outside the country. Believe it or not, we haven't scratched the surface so to hear Raddatz go on about the "two sides" went beyond uninformed to flat out insulting.

It's not even possible, for those who might feel the need to rush to Raddatz' defense, to argue that, by "the two sides," she was referring to the conflict between Shia and Sunni. For those who've missed it, the Kurdish region has been a source of conflict for the central (puppet) government out of Baghdad. That's not limited to the continued tensions with Turkey over the presence of the PKK, it also includes the issue of the Kurdistan Regional Government making oil contracts (that the central government says they have now cancelled) with foreign nations and the intense tensions created over whether oil-rich Kirkuk should or should not become a part of the KRG. Kirkuk was just placed under "curfew" and US and Iraqi forces sent in which further demonstrates the problems with Raddatz' scope.

She presented Western dualities when the situation was far more complicated and, as an alleged independent of the government reporter who is seen as someone versed in Iraq, her presentation goes a long way towards explaining how an illegal war could drag on and on.

But dualism is what Washington Week offers repeatedly. Each issue, like a coin, has two sides is the message sent out. That's not 'balanced' since many issues have multi-sides. Take the 2008 elections. Jeff Zeleny, of The New York Times and author of many bad reports, was on the show to offer 'political' coverage. You had a better shot at getting insight on ESPN's Sports Night. He spent the bulk of his allotted jaw-boning time discussing Hillary Clinton, senator and presidential contender, and Barack Obama, also a senator and a presidential contender. It's the 'dualism' of it all apparently. Having wasted the bulk of his time, he then felt the need to share what, for him, was a shocking development: he's struck by the amount of people "still coming to see" presidential contender John Edwards.

Shocking! Don't those people seeking out Edwards know the press has decreed it a two-horse horserace? Zeleny noted that the press coverage really doesn't "reflect" that occurrence (crowds turning out for Edwards)+. His presentation certainly didn't since the bulk of it revolved around Clinton and Obama. (For those wondering, the Edwards footnote was as far as Zeleny got in terms of discussing all the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.)

He did note that it's "hard" polling in Iowa and that the state isn't reflective because "this isn't a primary, it's a caucus." Far be it from us to disagree with a point we made Wednesday when filling in for Elaine and Mike. But what was the value in anything Zeleny offered? You could see Gwen grimace (and remark on) Zeleny's prediction that New Hampshire might bring a second Clinton comeback. But if you thought narrowing the race down to two candidates might mean you could hear some positions the candidates had taken, you would be wrong. It was all jaw-boning based on assumptions. Including the assumption that you knew about New Hampshire. In 1992, Bill Clinton's campaign managed to launch a comeback by spinning a second place finish as a 'win.' What that had to do with today's race was zilch but it was a nice way to offer a reference that made it seem like you had some background and could actually discuss the topic intelligently. But passing yourself off like Hedda or Lolly won't make you a real journalist (hint: no one needs to know the factoid on how much time Hillary or Bill Clinton intend to spend in Iowa between now and the caucus -- that's not an issue, that's not a position).

Joan Biskupic, of USA Today, was also caught up in the dualities. She used her allotted time to address the upcoming case before the Supreme Court involving the right to bear arms. On the plus, she didn't assume that everyone would know the nicks and crannies. There was no fleeting mention of New Hampshire, instead she read the Second Amendment to the Constitution and explained that the federal courts have traditionally held -- in the last century -- that the amendment applied to state militias ("National Guard," she then clarified) and not to individuals. A recent court verdict found that it applied to gun owners so now there was a conflict that the Supreme Court needed to resolve, according to her. She then rushed through with some half a sentence shout outs to other upcoming cases (including the issue of the prisoners of Guantanamo) before waiting for questions that really didn't come. (We'll be kind and ignore the one she answered.)

Charles Babington, of Associated Press, always comes off a little too "The glass still has a drop of liquid in it!" Opposite Gwen, he continued to maintain that extreme optimism. He stated that Congressional Democrats "thought the 2006 election was a mandate" on Iraq. Well, the 2006 election was a mandate on Iraq. The polling demonstrates that was what the voters believed. As for the idea that Democrats in Congress ever believed that or intended to act on it, Charlie offered no proof. He really wasn't interested in the topic, he found farm subsidies much more 'sexy' judging by the manner and length he went on about them. For the record, no large grouping in national polls found that voters returned power in both houses of Congress to the Democrats on the issue of farming. If someone could get the word to Charlie, it would be hugely appreciated. He went on to warn, "I think 2008 might be a difficult year to get things accomplished in Congress."

2008? Has he slept through 2007? (Shhhhh, no comments about the bed hair he sported.) He did speak about Democrats in Congress' concern that Bully Boy might bypass them with recess appointments if they all took the two-week Thanksgiving break. To avoid those appointment which would bypass Senate confirmation, he explained Congress was running a skeletal crew on the graveyard shift so that a meeting (he said one lasted only thirty seconds) could take place every day and Congress would not be considered in recess. That almost made up for his obsession with farm subsidies.

For him, it was the dualities of Republicans v. Democrats, for Zeleny it was the duality of Clinton v. Obama, for Biskupic it was the duality of the NRA v. the federal courts' traditional decisions. Every topic was simplified to the extreme and the conflict was always between two participants -- as if public television's mandate was to simply Americans understandings instead of challenging it. So it's no wonder that Radditz played along taking a complex issue like Iraq and seeing it populated with "two sides."

Whatever happened to the mandate under which PBS was created? Pat Mitchell was referencing it on January 13, 2005 (plugging a joint-production with HBO), simplifying it down to "to foster an engaged, informed citizenry through content that offers insight and sparks meaningful dialogue." Who's informed by discussions of polls and who's going to be where on the campaign trail? Since when is an itinerary a political position?

Complexities? The Writers Guild of America is on strike. This effects TV and film. CBS News writers may go on strike next. If CBS News writers go on strike, the network would not be linked to in any "Iraq snapshot" or anything else community wide for the duration of the strike.

We're not writing for television. Our sympathies and loyalties are with the writers -- who are striking to get their percentage from markets that have emerged since the last significant strike (DVD and internet royalties). Money is being made and the writers are not receiving their fair share. We thought the strike meant only that we didn't physically cross picket lines.

Each week we cover TV here. When the strike loomed, we joked to each other about the time off we could have if we stopped writing about TV as a show of solidarity. Those were just jokes (and longing to have a week or two off). Then the strike started.

We continued doing our TV commentaries. Most writers on strike that we know had no problem with it and we had polled several when the strike was announced. After we continued doing the commentaries, others let us know that they thought we were breaking the strike. Last Sunday, we almost didn't write a commentary. We asked those upset with us to wait until the end of last week when, due to Thanksgiving, we'd be off the road and able to speak to face to face as long as needed.

We've done that. All input was appreciated but we especially note a show runner (of a show we reviewed a long, long, long time ago). Writers are on strike to get a slice of the pie that they are entitled to. The strike itself is being utilized to send the message that it's not business as usual. As such, we will not be reviewing anything other than news programming and syndicated programs (that have long since been cancelled, not first-run syndication). What is currently airing is (obviously) TV episodes that have already been taped and filmed. To continue providing coverage of them would send a message that it's business as usual.

When the strike is over, we will return to covering the entertainment offerings. Until then, we'll be (sadly) spending a great deal of time with PBS news programming. In the strictest of terms, in the "dualities" Washington Week is so damn fond of, the strike doesn't apply to us at all. But things are rarely as simplistic as they sound when people sit down across from Gwen. Providing coverage of first run episodes -- even if it's negative coverage -- is steering people to those shows and we aren't comfortable with that while a strike is going on. We thank those who told us it didn't matter. We appreciate their input. We thank those who told us it did and agreed to table the issue until we could speak face to face. After speaking at length with the second category of friends, we agree that our entertainment coverage needs to immediately stop.

As far as we know, there is, however, no strike preventing coverage of Iraq. In the biggest truth spoken on the latest Washington Week, Raddatz declared, "Every day that Iraq is not in the news is a good day for the president." We've explained why we will not be covering entertainment television, maybe it's time for people to ask independent media outlets why they aren't covering Iraq?
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