Good Morning, Baghdad
You wake up in the morning and wander into the living room and search for the remote control. It is in its usual place -- stuck inexplicably between the cushions on the sofa. You turn on the television and stand there flipping from one channel to the other, looking for a news brief or something that will sum up what happened during the six hours that you were asleep. You finally settle on Julie Chen -- with her big hair, bright power suit, capped teeth and colorful talons -- blandly reading the news. It's CBS' The Early Show. Live from Fifth Avenue and now on my television screen right here in Baghdad.
Two years ago, much of the war in Iraq was all about bombarding us with smart bombs and high-tech missiles. Now thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a different sort of war -- or perhaps itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just another phase of the same war. Now weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re being assailed with American media. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s everywhere, all at once.
The assault began with radio stations like Voice of America, which we could access even before the war. After the war, there were other radio stations -- the kind with mechanical voices that told us to put down our weapons and remain inside our homes, that fed us American news in an Iraqi dialect, and others that just played music.
Today, Iraqis with a satellite dish are constantly listening to American music and watching American sitcoms and movies. To be fair, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not just Iraq that is being targeted by this media offensive -- itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the entire Middle East. And itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all being done very cleverly.
Al-Hurra -- the purported "channel of freedom" and the American gift to the Arab world -- airs translated documentaries about certain historical events (American documentaries) or about movie stars (American stars) or vacation spots. Throughout the day, Arab anchors give viewers the latest news. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s news about the Arab world with the American twist -- like watching Fox News in Arabic.
Our new Ã¢â‚¬Å“nationalÃ¢â‚¬Â (Iraqi) channels are a joke. The most amusing, in a gruesome sort of way, is Al-Iraqiya. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s said to be American sponsored, but the attitude is decidedly pro-Iran and anti-Sunni. In one of its programs, they parade "terrorists" on screen in an attempt to show us that our National Guard is not only good at raiding homes and harassing people in the streets, but also keeping us "safe." The funny thing about the terrorists is that the majority of them have Sunni names like Omar, Othman, etc. They admit on-air to doing things such as having sexual intercourse in mosques and raping women. The entire show is disgusting.
Iraqis, of course, donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe a word of it because the program is so blatantly obvious in in its attempt to support the American definition of a terrorist -- i.e. the Sunni Muslim fanatic -- that it is embarrassing. CouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the PSYOPS people come up with anything more subtle?
Then you have the whole MBC collection of channels. MBC is actually financed by Saudi Arabia, but based in Dubai, as far as I know. They started out with the original MBC, which was a mainly Arabic channel that was harmless enough. It aired some talk shows, debates, and Egyptian movies, along with an occasional program on music or style.
Then we were introduced to MBCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s news channel, Al-Arabia, which is meant to be the Saudi antidote to Al-Jazeera. At the same time, the company also introduced MBCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Channel 2, which only airs English movies and programs, from talk shows like Oprah to sitcoms such as Friends, Third Rock from the Sun, and Seinfeld. Then earlier this year, the MBC made a mystifying decision. They announced that Channel 2 was going to be made into a 24-hour movie channel which would air all sorts of movies -- old Clint Eastwood cowboy movies and newer movies like A Beautiful Mind, etc. The talk shows and sitcoms would be transferred to the new MBC Channel 4.
I personally was pleased with the change at first. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not big on movies and it was nice to know our favorite sitcoms and programs would all be accessible on one channel without the annoyance of two-hour movies. I could turn on Channel 4 at any time and expect to find something interesting or humorous that would end within 30 minutes to an hour.
What's more, now we had a lot more programs. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember what the discussion was about the first time I saw 60 Minutes, but I remember being vaguely interested and somewhat mystified at why we were getting the program. I soon found out that it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just 60 Minutes. Now we had Good Morning, America in the morning, 20/20 in the evening, along with 48 Hours, Inside Edition, The Early Show -- a constant barrage of American media.
As the chipper voice in Arabic tells us, Ã¢â‚¬Å“So you can watch what they watch!Ã¢â‚¬Â "They" apparently being millions of Americans.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been enchanted with these shows for the last few weeks. What strikes me most is the fact that the news is so Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ clean. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s like hospital food, all organized and disinfected, and partitioned. You can sense how the news has been doled out carefully, with extreme attention to the portions: two minutes on womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rights in Afghanistan; one minute on training troops in Iraq; and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reports are upbeat and somewhat cheerful, while the anchor person manages to look properly concerned and completely uncaring all at once.
A month ago, we were treated to an interview conducted by Elizabeth Vargas on 20/20 with Sabrina Harman -- the witch in some of the Abu Ghraib pictures. You know, the one smiling over faceless, naked Iraqis piled up to make a human pyramid.
The whole show was revolting. It tried to portray Sabrina as an innocent who did wrong because she was following military orders and was afraid of higher-ranking officers. The show went on and on about how American troops never really got seminars on the Geneva Convention (like one needs to be taught humanity), and how poor Sabrina was being made a scapegoat. They showed the restaurant where she worked before the war, and how everyone thought she was Ã¢â‚¬Å“such a nice personÃ¢â‚¬Â who couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hurt a fly!
We sat there watching like we were a part of another world, in another galaxy. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always sensed from reading various websites that American mainstream news is far-removed from reality -- I just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t realize how far. Everything is so tame and simplified. Everyone is so sincere.
What's more, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t understand the American fascination with reality shows like Survivor, The Bachelor, Faking It, The Contender ... itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s endless. Is life so boring that people need to watch the conjured up lives of others?
Well, I have a suggestion for a reality show. Take 15 Bush supporters and throw them in a house in the suburbs of, say, Falloojeh (Fallujah) for at least 14 days. We could watch them cope with the water problems, the lack of electricity, the checkpoints, the raids, the Iraqi National Guard, the bombings, and -- oh yeah -- the "insurgents." We could watch their house get bombed to the ground, their few belongings crushed under the weight of cement and brick, or simply burned or riddled with bullets. We could see them try to rebuild their life with their bare hands and the equivalent of $150.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d not only watch that reality show, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d tape every episode.