One Night in Baghdad

As we are about to wade into the murky waters of Iraq: The Sequel, the HBO film Live From Baghdad comes to us taped from Morocco. Starring Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter, Live From Baghdad chronicles the adventures of a group of CNN journalists reporting from Baghdad in 1990-1991 as Desert Shield morphed into Desert Storm. 

Unlike other movies such as "Salvador"," Cry Freedom" and "All The President’s Men", in which journalists serve as a catalyst to tell The Real Story (CIA involvement in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, and Watergate, respectively), Live From Baghdad barely delves into the roots of the Iraqi-American conflict at all. Here, the journalists are the story.

CNN, in its own review of the film, was kind enough to make a parenthetical note of the fact that both HBO and CNN are owned by the same parent company, AOL Time Warner. It’s hard to critique such a coincidence without dipping into Cold War era terminology (words like “propaganda” come to mind), but it’s worth pointing out that Live From Baghdad is not a story about the Gulf War, or even about covering the Gulf War. It is, specifically, about CNN’s triumph over other news outlets in getting the midnight scoop on the first night of bombing over Baghdad on Jan. 16, 1991.

In the film we see old footage of other network anchors, including Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings, congratulating CNN -- “once known as ‘the little network that could’” -- for its bravado. We see war correspondent Peter Arnett (Bruce McGill) leaning against the wall in a hotel corridor, beer in hand, calling out to other journalists as they scurry to catch the first flight out (“Oh, look at ‘em run. Hurry!”). We see producer Robert Wiener (Keaton) phoning Atlanta after the night is over, where he’s told that he “can rest assured that [he’s] the envy of every journalist in the world.”

That much is probably fair. Prior to the Gulf War, the idea of a round-the-clock news network was considered about as thrilling as the Weather Channel. Desert Shield, and its slightly more dramatic following, Desert Storm, did, in fact, propel CNN into its current Major Player status. Remember when you could only get world news for half an hour each night on one of the three major networks? Yeah, me neither.

Where things get cloudy is in the subsequent insinuation that CNN’s reporting of one chaotic night was synonymous with “getting the story,” however that may be defined. Many reporters have commented on the control, by both the Americans and the Iraqis, over what could and could not be photographed and described on international news during the Gulf War. The film’s implication that CNN’s reporting of one night of bombing in Baghdad is synonymous with free-wheeling, in-depth coverage of the Iraqi-American conflict in general is, at very best, misleading.

Post-Vietnam censorship of war coverage has been a topic of interest for more than two decades. American reporting from Vietnam is widely held responsible for the popular resistance to the war; allowing reporters unlimited access to battle scenes was a mistake that President Reagan and subsequent administrations weren’t willing to make twice. The plot of "Good Morning Vietnam" centered around just this issue: the conflict between a DJ’s insistence on reporting war casualties to American GIs stationed abroad, and his superiors’ resolve to stop him lest he damage morale.

Peter Arnett himself has talked at length about the Pentagon’s efforts to keep disturbing battle images, particularly of dead Americans, from filtering back home to American TV screens. “The Pentagon basically doesn’t want anyone to see the first brutal elements of war,” he said during a 1991 speech at Stanford University. “In Desert Storm, for example, there were few if any pictures transmitted during the fighting of either dead or wounded GIs and few of the thousands of dead Iraqis. It’s not easy to find a picture of any of those. Accounts of the relatively few combat engagements fought by the Allied side on the ground were delayed by elaborate censorship schemes.”

This was offset, or perhaps enhanced, by Iraqis’ censorship over coverage of the Iraqi resistance movement. “There was no way in Baghdad,” said Arnett, “even if I believed it could I talk about the bravery of the Iraqis. I knew there were real restrictions on the kind of words that I could use.”

What Live From Baghdad did capture -- to the exclusion of almost all else -- is the frenetic pace of American-style television journalism. None of the correspondents are portrayed as having any particular interest in the conflict itself (aside from one shot of CNN producer Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter) shoving a copy of Republic of Fear in her luggage), much less an interest in the Middle East, save for its Indiana Jones thrill factor. What they do love is war. Any war. “I cried when that goddamn war ended,” says McGill-as-Arnett, speaking about Vietnam.

It’d be funny, if it weren’t so true. American journalists, as author Stephen Hess has noted, are frequently thrown blind into a conflict and expected to pick up the particulars as they go along. This sort of commando-style journalism gives rise to hot spot reporting by “parachutists” who focus on “mayhem, bombings, gun battles, mortar attacks, and civil strife” at the expense of background and analysis.

War, in such an environment, ceases to be a vehicle of foreign policy, ceases to have any relationship with history, international trade, or human rights. What it does become is an event that can make or break a journalist’s career. Rather than gloss over or apologize for this sad fact, Live From Baghdad revels in it. As the heroic Keaton-as-Wiener informs Atlanta, “I’m gonna stay. I’m gonna ride it out. This is my walk on the moon.”

To the real Wiener’s credit, his book (on which the film was based) contains some thoughtful political criticism of American foreign policy, of Iraq, of censorship, and of war itself. The film version apparently wrote all this off as boring and pedantic, unable to compete with the wham-bang image of Keaton being blasted across his hotel room in the middle of a bombing.

The most compelling thing about Live From Baghdad, unfortunately relegated to a subplot, is the relationship between Wiener and Iraq’s Minister of Information, Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet). Although both characters jokingly acknowledge that they are using each other, just what, exactly, the Iraqis are getting from the exchange is never fully explored. Viewers are left with the impression that their only job is to censor television footage, as though they had nothing to gain from CNN’s access to Pentagon officials and the American military in Saudi Arabia. Yet anyone who remembers the Gulf War will remember the notion that “Saddam could be watching this” loomed large and colored all discussions, all arguments, over what should and should not be censored during wartime.

But Saddam Hussein wasn’t the only one watching CNN. Following the Gulf War, CNN -- and, later, Al Jazeera -- emerged as potent influences in Arab countries. Satellite television’s disrespect of national borders renders it a powerful tool indeed.

“A dynamic new Arab world has emerged,” wrote Fatema Mernissi in "Islam and Democracy", “in which constant mobility in both mental and physical space, juggling with divergent opinions, and selecting from different cultures have been instinctively adopted by our youth as techniques for survival. The master educators of this new Arab world, which is still classified by the disoriented International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as ‘illiteracy-ridden,’ are neither the religious teachers at mosques nor the instructors at state schools and universities but the designers of satellite TV programs.”

As we move into the next phase of the American conflict with Iraq, it’s useful to reflect on the changes that have occurred in the media over the past 10 years. Al Jazeera and satellite dishes have put a dent in Arab regimes’ attempts to control information, and the DIY anarchy of the Internet has served as counterweight to American media monopolies.

Even in Iraq, perhaps the least wired nation on the planet, reporters got around UN sanctions prohibiting computers by feeding questions to Baghdad via satellite phone; news from the 1998 bombing was dictated to a London office using U.S. technology for the benefit of 12,000 online chat participants worldwide. This is just one of many examples in which cobbled-together technology can challenge censorship without depending on major news networks like CNN, who are themselves dependent on remaining in the good graces of both their host country and their advertisers back home.

“Manufacturing one’s identity,” writes Mernissi, “previously the monopoly of ruthless military states which sent a whole generation of Arabs into prisons, is now the privilege of any youth who has access to a cybercafe.”

“You own this war,” Wiener is told in Live From Baghdad, a sentiment that already seems dated. If the medium is to become the message, let it be for its potential to undermine the idea that any one person can own a story, that any one news organization -- or president, or dictator -- can control the flood of information coming in and out of a war zone.

Technology’s ability to override national borders, despite the frustrated efforts of even the most diligent information ministers and the most stringent sanctions policies, provides all kinds of possibilities for networking between activists, policymakers, writers, exiles and dissidents.

CNN’s 1991 coverage of Baghdad is perhaps an interesting place to mark the beginning of this revolution, but we should be assured that the bravery of a handful of journalists is already matched -- if not outdone -- by the efforts of hostages with cell phones, refugees with radios, and students in Internet cafes throughout the world. All wars from here on out will belong to them. And if improved communication can avoid those wars altogether, that, too, will be their victory.

Laura Fokkena‘s essay, “Watching Them Grow Up,” appeared in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad (Seal Press, 2002). She currently lives in Boston. Other PopPolitics articles can be found here.

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