Saturday, December 11, 2010

Like walking on the moon

Journalists in the Movies. (Final Paper)

So my Journalism 393F instructor, John Katzenbach, has been overly nice all semester--keeping assignments relatively short and deadlines fairly flexible. Except of course for the final. Not less then 2,500 words and a drop dead deadline. Yikes.

And No, I do not mention the perfect 'Only in Amherst' connection to this historic event because I figure Mr. Katzenbach has lived here over 20 years so he probably remembers it as well: only days before Operation Desert Storm lit up Baghdad like a Christmas tree, venerable Amherst Town Meeting voted unanimously at a Special Town Meeting for a resolution addressed to President Bush and Congress--with that being the only article on the warrant--demanding we "continue negotiations" with Saddam Hussein, thus reaffirming Tracy Kidder's aside about Amherst being the only town with a foreign policy


Every good athlete dreams of that rarefied moment when skills acquired through years of long hours of physical training combine with competitive experience, and perhaps a little luck, and all come together at the perfect moment to make a decisive difference in the contest of a lifetime.

Just as every journalist dreams of being in the right place at the right time with the proper equipment to cover the story of a lifetime.

"Live from Baghdad" represents just such an event for Robert Wiener, the CNN producer who lived it. He points out to his editor that it could become, “The journalistic equivalent of walking on the moon."

Early on we learn that Wiener has regrets that he abandoned Viet Nam before the fall of Saigon--so vividly captured in videos carried on the major networks showing helicopters retreating from the roof of the American Embassy with marines pushing back panicked South Vietnamese; or the exclusive video captured by Australian photographer Neil Davis showing North Vietnamese tanks smashing through the gates of the presidential palace and raising the communist flag.

The opening scene set in a movie theatre sets up the good verses evil theme by going back six months to the day Saddam Hussein first attacked Kuwait. Civilians are watching an American science fiction movie--'Tremors', starring Kevin Bacon--where he is fighting a snake-like monster and the loud action on the screen is suddenly interrupted by the rumble and roar of tanks storming into the city. Saddam Hussein is of course the monster.

The main characters are introduced in a documentary style with names and job titles rolling across the screen as they first come into view. The CNN newsroom looks like a typical big-city news operation with phones ringing, a plethora of employees typing away on computers and the editors dressed in traditional business attire.

Weiner says to his boss as part of his pitch to get the assignment to go to Baghdad on the eve of war: "We're a 24 hours news station and we need a 24 hour news story, and this one just fell from the heavens."

This statement is also somewhat ironic in that the most gripping part of the story would end up being the bombs falling from the heavens on Baghdad (and anti aircraft fire spraying wildly into the night sky) dropped from US stealth bombers that lead the assault on the first night.

The moral dilemma Wiener would face as a journalist is also on display early on: as he and his crew arrive at the airport in Iraq a CBS journalist is leaving and somewhat jokingly derides him: "From us they (the viewers) get the news, from you they (the Iraq regime) gets access."

The tensions he and his crew would live under is quickly demonstrated by shots of all the surveillance equipment on the streets and in their hotel room (9th floor the of the Al Rasheed Hotel)

The first story they file underscores the depth of Wiener's news judgment and how clever he is getting things past Iraq censors. While watching government TV in their hotel room they notice a "news" story of Saddam Hussein welcoming British "guests" in one of his many luxury palaces. They all can tell that a 5-year-old child looks petrified as Hussein pats him on the head in a forced, stiff manner--reminiscent of Richard Nixon's clunky "checkers speech" (about his dog).

Wiener perceptively says to his crew: "This is not the story (tapping the screen image of Hussein), this is," as he circles with his index finger the image of the child's panic stricken face.

So they run that video on CNN and close with a stand up by their correspondent strongly suggesting that anywhere else in the free world these folks would be considered "hostages" but in Iraq under the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein they are considered "guests". A word play George Orwell would appreciate.

The scene showing this first feed back to Atlanta also demonstrates the resolve of the crew as they have to use an Iraq government TV station with antiquated technology and only at the very last second do they make it work, much to the relief of CNN bosses back in Atlanta.

At the obligatory bar scene after this first triumph other mainstream journalists criticize Wiener saying, “You give Hitler a microphone and call it journalism.” And another one chimes in about “providing context to a story.”

An agitated Wiener responds, “Who are you to say what it means!” And indeed he has a point. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words than a video is easily worth ten times that.

The next morning as they are off to do another story Wiener explains to one of his crew, “Got to get something to feed the beast.” A concept that underscores the then relatively knew concept of a 24-hour news cycle now taken for granted by journalists harnessing the power of the Internet.

This second story they file is not much of a follow up as all they get is a routine Iraq demonstration (“dog bites man” story) highly encouraged by the government with the clich├ęd anti-US chanting, burning of American flags and a small child holding a sign saying “We love Saddam.”

In the American embassy office Wiener looks out at the demonstration his crew is filming with a state department bureaucrat he has just given a box of expensive cigars (at CNN expense) who tells him, “As soon as you stop filming they pack up and go”--which of course happens on cue.

Back in Atlanta, his editors are not impressed with the story. At this point we learn Wiener is attempting to get the Mother Of All Interviews: a one on one with Saddam Hussein.

In order to accomplish this he meets with the Iraq Minister of Information (head government PR flack) and arrives dutifully at his office at 8:00 AM but is kept waiting until after 4:00 PM, thus demonstrating once again his resolve.

When he first meets with Naji Al-Hadithi (who is gazing out a window while slowly kneading prayer beads) the Minister demonstrates he is no inexperienced fool as he says to Wiener (referencing the first story with Saddam and the hostages), “You got your story out.”

Wiener requests an interview with Saddam Hussein and a four-wire circuit hook up so he can contact his office directly, although he does not make it clear that it is his office in Atlanta rather then the local one in the Middle East.

In another follow up story they file the crew gains access to the US Ambassadors Compound where American oil workers and businessmen are sequestered in order to avoid be taken and used as “human shields.”

One outspoken agitated American worker derides the crew, calling them “vultures” and tries to intimidate them into leaving without a story, which Wiener deftly deflects.

His crew interviews businessman Bob Denton who seems not worried at all with the words he’s using (in a monotone way) and praises the Iraqi people, but at the same time the cameraman notices--and zooms in on--his trembling right hand.

After the story airs Bob Denton disappears and Wiener feels guilty thinking he has put him in jeopardy, which of course he has. His able assistant, Ingrid Formanek, points out that Denton’s choose to go on camera using his own free will, something we Americans value. But Wiener is still deeply troubled.

His depression turns to exasperation when he and the crew discover Dan Rather has aired an exclusive interview on CBS with Saddam Hussein.

When he confronts the Minister of Information, who has now become a friend, Naji informs him that his request for a four-wire telephone hook up has been approved and as an additional consolation prize offers him a trip to Kuwait to do a story clarification concerning Iraq soldiers taking babies out of incubators and letting them die on the cold concrete floors.

The crew was promised access to three Kuwait hospitals but their Iraq handler cut them off after the first. The movie uses the same technique of the tight shot of a nervous face to suggest that the Doctor was scared (like the 5-year-old British youth with Saddam) and coerced into dispelling the rumor that babies were murdered, leaving the strong impression that the rumors were true.

Even before the CNN crew can file their story the Iraq Minister of Information has put out a press release saying the only Americans to visit Kuwait have verified that the awful stories of dead babies were in fact false.

His able assistant states the one thing most journalists take pains to avoid: “We have just become the story.”

At this point Wiener realizes he’s been used and Naji later confirms, “Both sides use the media.” Indeed. In a phone conversation with Atlanta his unhappy editors tell him next time to film and report whatever he sees but then admits they will still run the story absolving the Iraq military of the horrible rumor.

The movie clearly leaves the impression that the crew made a mistake filming the contrived story and furthermore CNN made a mistake in running it, but in fact that is far from the case.

Much like the violent scene in the movie “Cronicas” where the mob is attacking the man for accidentally killing a child who ran in front of his truck but he is in fact a serial killer who does prey on children.

This is a major weakness in the movie. The baby incubator story was completely fabricated, aided by a well-coached 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwait Minister of Information and a highly paid PR firm.

In the DVD I rented no disclaimer appeared updating viewers on that reality, although some sources on the Internet stated that HBO in subsequent airings--in response to criticism--added an addendum saying the incubator story was indeed proven false.

In a phone conversation on their newly installed four-wire circuit the president of CNN, obviously unhappy, demands to know “Why were we the only ones the Iraqis chose to do the incubator story?” With a pained expression on his face Wiener slowly hangs up the phone without answering.

Continuing to press his friend Naji for an interview with Hussein, Wiener says passionately “People are going to die...They are going to die when we stop talking!” His impassioned pleas works, and they land the interview with Saddam Hussein. CNN sends anchor Bernard Shaw to do the story.

As Wiener is placing the microphone on Saddam Hussein’s expensive tie he briefly looks into his stern, resolute eyes and casually remarks, “Nice tie.”
After the interview one of his crew says, “We were looking into the eyes of a killer.” No mention of course that the US, a few years earlier, aided Hussein in his war with Iran.

But Wiener is unhappy with the interview as it simply restated the routine: Hussein was not backing down and that giving up Kuwait would be the same as the US giving up Hawaii,

When one of his crew remarks, “If any interview with Saddam Hussein is not news, then what is?” “War,” he responds. Quick cut to archive footage of US troops in full battle gear with overdub of President Bush calling Hussein a “bully.”

Next major event they cover is Hussein releasing all the hostages (“guests”) and at the airport where they go to get footage Wiener spots Bob Vinton the missing man he interviewed earlier.

Vinton does not even recognize Wiener and simply says the Iraqis had moved him to another office building before he hurries off to one of the last planes out of Baghdad.

Cut back to a scene with Naji who tells Wiener “You deceived us,” referring to the four-wire phone. Wiener responds, “Are you going to take it back?” And Naji, spouting the Fox News tagline, responds, “No, you are fair and balanced and we trust you to use it responsibly,” adding the line Wiener used with him earlier, “As long as we keep on talking there’s still hope.”

At this point gun-ho correspondent Peter Arnett arrives exuding adrenaline and the thrill of covering something he obviously loves—war. Bernard Shaw has returned as Naji had dangled the opportunity of interviewing Hussein at the appointed hour of the deadline day imposed by President Bush. As he is taking a cab with Wiener through the abandoned streets of Baghdad he remarks, “High noon.”

The US sends out the code message “Baby has gotten the sniffles,” which means an attack is imminent. Wiener allows each crewmember to decide to stay or go as the CNN president had made it perfectly clear he did not want to lose any employees.

Surprisingly his assistant says she will go. Wiener had already told his editor in Atlanta, “I’m not going to walk away from a great story again”

Cut to darkened complete abandoned streets of Baghdad with Naji gazing out a window once again manipulating his prayer beads. And then all Hell breaks loose as American bombs fall and Iraq counter fire goes up. Since communication is the first priority in a coordinated attack the traditional phone lines go out instantly.

Only CNN is left with the opportunity to report the story live as it happens via the four-wire phone, reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow’s 1939 radio coverage live from the top of a hotel room describing the Nazi blitz of London.

Wiener moves his “non essential” crew down to the basement bomb shelter where he runs into an ABC employee who says, “You killed us Wiener…You own this war.”

Cut back to a tight shot of Saddam Hussein and President Bush’s face as they watch the live CNN broadcast.

After a night of continuous bombardment and a few close calls with all the major networks relying on the CNN phoned in live reports, the morning dawns over a devastated Baghdad.

Wiener’s boss in Atlanta tells him over the phone that the coverage he provided was “simply incredible…you are the envy of every journalist around the world.”

Walking in the debris with Naji who is now dressed in a battle uniform Wiener is thankful that he “kept his word.” Naji responds, “And you got your story.” Wiener gets the last line: “Not the one I wanted,” as he slowly ambles off stage right and Naji exits stage left.

The HBO production aired in 2002 just as the US was preparing to return to Iraq and finish the job started in 1991—deposing Saddam Hussein. And since one of the repeated themes in the movie is the value of negotiation, it was probably viewed by many as an anti war film.

Since the script was also written by Robert Wiener, based on his book of the same name, there’s no doubt the adaptation was true to his original vision. One reason why he probably kept the “incubator story” in the film—because indeed it happened.

The journalism ably represented by Wiener and crew is the traditional “get the story” type of journalism that occasionally gets reporters killed. Although Wiener, obviously distraught about potential harm brought on to one of his sources, exhibits more conscious than many journalists.

The hint of romance with his attractive assistant Ingrid Formanek--but confirmation that no actual affair occurs--also underscores Wiener’s family values.

He is told by the CNN president (who lost two reporters when he was at the LA Times) to make sure he “brings everyone back safe.” When the bombing is imminent Wiener allows a vote on who wants to stay or take a plane out of Baghdad, although it becomes a moot point as the bombing starts.

Wiener demonstrates he has faith in the viewer even though he takes heat from the other journalists for airing the propaganda film of Saddam patting the head of the five-year-old British boy.

Just before the bombs fall as he looks out over a darkened Baghdad with an anti aircraft gun slowly swiveling like a tiger pacing in a cage, he says to Ingrid Formanek, “What are we dong here?”

She responds with a memorable sentiment worthy of a close: “We don’t solve the world's problems, we report them.”


Ed said...

What is a 4-wire phone and why didn't that line get cut too?


LarryK4 said...

It connected to a wire that ran underground (or more precisely under the desert) so it was immune to an air attack.

Although a direct hit on the Al Rasheed with a 1,000 pound bomb would have taken it out.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever teach you what makes a paragraph and when to start a new one? You would think this was written by junior high school student.


LarryK4 said...

I figured you would like it.

Anonymous said...

too long to read

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, my Prof last semester said my main strength was also my weakness: I write short and tight.

"Great for blogging...not so great for academic papers."

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but it's not an academic world anymore.

Keep up the good work Larry.