Gulf of Misunderstanding

What this war says about the state of the media.


Back during the first Gulf War, most of us got our news from the grimy, black and white pages of daily newspapers and from safari-jacket-sporting broadcast bobbleheads on ABC, CBS, and NBC (only the grim visages of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw could have made a "Scud Stud" out of the likes of itinerant correspondent Arthur Kent). Established in 1980 yet still earning its cub reporter stripes 10 years later, the (relatively) new kid on the block was Ted Turner's CNN, whose live-from-Baghdad reports circumvented the Pentagon's info clampdown and whose 24/7 coverage rewrote the rule book on how to cover war.

This time around, not only has Saddam Hussein's self-glorifying statuary been dragged to the ground, so has much of the media establishment. Ted Turner is an also-ran as a media mogul and the trailblazing news network he founded is basic cable's equivalent of your father's Oldsmobile. Even before but especially during the new war, CNN has been thoroughly smoked in the ratings by the 6-year-old Fox News Channel, whose relentless "fair and balanced" mantra, delivered with a knowing wink and a smile, amply proves that irony survived the 9/11 attacks in fine form.

Another outlet that wasn't around for Gulf War I , the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, routinely delivers reports that are as fanciful as anything in The Arabian Nights—and highly useful as supplements to Western media sources. Other news channels, both foreign and domestic, add yet more to the mix.

Peter and Dan and Tom are still around, of course. They're older, wiser, and richer than ever—and watched by fewer and fewer people. Broadcast news audiences have declined by at least one-third during the past decade, leaving us all to wonder whether street thugs nowadays would even bother insisting that Dan Rather finally—finally!—tell us all about the frequency. Thanks to the World Wide Web—still a year away from going live when U.S. tanks rolled into Iraq in 1991—we can supplement whatever we find in the now-color-filled major U.S. dailies with virtually every newspaper in the world, from established press organs such as Le Monde and the London Times to truly alternative rags such as The People's Korea, which promotes the greater glory of the Dear Leader better known as Kim Jong Il (and if you can't read a paper's language, a translation site is only a click away).

On top of the exponentially larger cyber-newsstand at our fingertips, whole new forms of participatory journalism have come into existence between Gulf wars, perhaps none more striking with regard to Operation Iraqi Freedom than Salam Pax's pseudonymous, haunting (and possibly faked) Baghdad-based blog at http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/.

We've got news and opinions galore coming out of our ears—and our TVs, our radios, and our computers. Yet in a world so flush with proliferating information sources and media-based creative destruction, in a world overflowing with more and different voices (big and small, smart and dumb) than ever before, it's comforting to know that some things never change.

Hence, just as Saddam's statues were being dragged through the streets of Baghdad and that news was being reported, critiqued, and discussed in more ways than have ever been possible in all of human history, alarums were being sounded that what we really need in the U.S. is stricter regulation of media.

Speaking at April's National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Barry Diller, the former poobah who oversaw Universal Studios TV production unit, solemnly intoned that, "The big four networks have in fact reconstituted themselves into the oligopoly that the FCC originally set out to curb in the 1960s." Never mind that "the big three" networks became "the big four" under the very "deregulation" Diller assailed. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal report, he insisted, "We need more regulation, not less."

Maybe Diller and his broadcaster pals need more regulation. But if the media world is any indication—and it is—the rest of us don't.