War Without Grief

The second son of an old friend we’ve known since high school disappeared over the Persian Gulf three weeks ago. His Navy bomber was blown out of the sky. No one saw a parachute.

Before the war began, we advanced the idea that this was one the White House would find easy to fight, because it was going to be fought by nobody that anybody knew. A stupid idea–however ironically we intended it. A little boy we remember grew up and died for his country. The news made us feel old, and it made us feel unworthy.

The Navy listed our friend’s son as missing in action, but this formality was a thin reed he refused to cling to. When we called, we found him consoled by his religion and by the knowledge that his boy had died serving a cause he believed in. Our friend thought the war just. Like so many of us, he could not be as sure that it was wise. As much as he wished to believe that America was setting things right in the Middle East, he saw all too clearly why the war’s legacy was apt to be fury and chaos.

The two of us had been out of touch for several years, and we took a deep breath before we phoned him. It was a self-conscious moment: as a journalist, we’d made dozens of those infamous calls to strangers, the ones in which the reporter inquires about the feelings of the bereaved while probing for newsworthy details of their calamity.

Oddly enough, those conversations generally go well. The desolate survivor welcomes the reporter as evidence that the world cares. And however absurd the circumstances–the call we cannot forget was to a father who’d just lost his daughter skydiving when her parachute didn’t open–a mourner has the power to impose his own dignity upon it. The grieving survivor often turned out to be sturdier than we were. And our friend was.

A few days before the ground war began in the Middle East, the Chicago Sun-Times published a remarkable announcement. We “will not intrude upon the private moments of grief and mourning of those who have lost a loved one in the war,” pledged the editor Dennis Britton. “We will afford family and friends the opportunity to talk with us if they’d like, but we will not bother them with phone calls, nor camp out on their front steps, nor invade the privacy of funerals. In the days ahead, we will endeavor to strike the right balance; to provide our readers with as much information as possible, while respecting each family’s right to share its truly private moments with peace and dignity.”

Our first reaction was to think that Britton had issued an emancipation proclamation. He had freed his staff from the reflexive bondage that each generation of reporters justifies to the next as being the dirty job that newspaper people do. We wondered if Britton would apply his ban across the board, to the quotidian victims of fire, reckless driving, and gunshots as well as to the casualties of war.

Our second reaction–which, by the way, is shared by many members of his staff–was to consider Britton’s decree moralistic and eccentric, and perhaps naive about the temperament of grieving families. Our third reaction was to wonder if he was playing into the hands of the enemy.

By the enemy, we mean the Department of Defense, which would have been delighted to see the media overlook the war’s human cost. And to tell the truth, the media tried. Iraqi dead were rendered as estimates, statistics, and America’s lost planes at best received a line or two in roundup stories focusing on the sortie count and the triumph of exotic weaponry. This was what the Pentagon wanted. Jack Hayes, a Chicago-based special correspondent for Life magazine, tells us about going back to his hometown to tell the story of a local boy who’d been shot down. The family wouldn’t talk to Hayes, even though they were neighbors Hayes had known for years. The Air Force had advised them that if the pilot was an Iraqi prisoner, and if personal information about the pilot made its way to Baghdad, the Iraqis might somehow use it against him.

When we talked to Britton, we asked if he was concerned that his new policy would aggravate the abstraction of the war.

“Yes, of course!” he said. “That’s one of the things we discussed and felt strongly about and continue to feel strongly about.

“But with the number of words and photographs we and everyone else are devoting to it, I don’t think the war is at all abstract. I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re sanitizing the war.’ But I don’t think so at all. If the war’s being sanitized, it’s being sanitized by the Pentagon. But that’s whole different issue. It distresses me that we’re able to put on the front page, as we did, bodies of Iraqis, and we’re not allowed to do the same with allied troops.”

Britton told us as far back as he could remember, the sort of intrusiveness he has now forbidden bothered him. “There are few times more private in a person’s life than the times associated with death.” But journalism has never hesitated to violate that privacy, and we asked Britton if his new policy would be enforced in peace as well as in war.

No, he said, at least not for now. To our surprise, he said it was an idea that hadn’t occurred to him.

War Without History

When Mona Charen weighed in this week in the Tribune, she was the third pundit we’d counted making something of the fact that Saturday Night Live did a send-up of a Pentagon press briefing. All three told the media to beware. Here’s how Charen put it: “When ‘Saturday Night Live’ goes gunning for you, you know you’ve gotten too stuffy.”

Or at least you know you make an easy target.

“Objectivity is great when the battle is between Democrats and Republicans,” Charen advised inanely. “But when the battle, with real bullets, is between Americans and Iraqis, a posture of indifference is callous. Be objective in fact, but not in spirit.”

A contrary school of thought holds that her indifferent press corps has actually behaved like a pack of White House stooges. An interesting new font of this wisdom began to gush when the war started: the newsletter Greenpeace Pundit Watch, which is faxed each week from Washington to various journalists around the country and is offered to the world at large via the PeaceNet, EcoNet, TCN, and EnviroNet computer networks.

This critique is a stretch for Greenpeace, we observed to Peter Dykstra, the organization’s U.S. media director and the newsletter’s editor. “There’s no environmental problem as serious as war,” he told us.

Pundit Watch has a ways to go. Media inanity is especially easy to find in wartime, and mistakes of fact and interpretation litter the landscape like spent shells. Just collecting this rubble doesn’t prove much. A more significant expression of what Dykstra is up to is “Editorial Hindsight,” the top story in issue five, which arrived this week. Here Pundit Watch dusts off a 1987 article in the New Republic that declared Iraq “the de facto protector of the regional status quo” and urged the U.S. to back it vigorously in its war against Iran.

Dykstra wants us all to take the long view. “What we’ve seen is a 30-year pattern of political sleight of hand,” he said, speaking of U.S. policy in the Middle East. “We extricate ourselves from one problem by making another.” And the press isn’t pointing that out.

There’s a war on, we said. The press is covering the war.

“This might draw an argument from you,” he responded, “but what I’d rather do is execute hindsight that does not go back to August 2 but goes back many years before. One can’t untangle the Middle East by looking back only to August 2. One has to turn the clock back 20 or 30 years.”

That’s a righteous ambition, and we hope that when the war’s over the mass media join Dykstra in giving the Middle East a massive airing out. We were reminded of a Victor Hugo story, “Fight With a Cannon.” A careless seaman allows a cannon to roll free below decks, and it batters against the bulkheads, putting the entire warship in danger. Heroically, the seaman lashes the big gun down. First the captain hails the valiant sailor. Then he executes him for his original blunder.

If there is any justice, some high-flying politicians get the same treatment. Dykstra is sure it will never happen.

War Without Women

What happened to Liz Sly? we asked Jim Yuenger, the foreign editor of the Tribune. As the war clouds darkened, Sly had contributed some valuable journalism on the mood of the people of the Middle East. Nothing in particular, Yuenger said. “After being on the road for most of the last four months, she’s back home in Washington for a while catching up on her sleep and her expense accounts.”

Here’s why we asked. When the war broke out and the Tribune first began running those full-page advertisements for itself–the ones picturing the staffers who bring us all “the Mideast news directly from the scenes,” along with the ones “reporting from the rest of the world”–the sole female face belonged to Liz Sly. Everyone else was a male–and save black photographer Ernest Cox in Saudi Arabia and black reporter Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. in Panama, a white male at that.

Then Sly was replaced–in Cairo and in the Tribune promotionals–by Stephen Franklin.

“Well, nobody dislikes that more than I do,” Yuenger told us, when we asked him about his paper’s honky-male view of the world. “We are well aware of it, and it’s been a subject of considerable internal discussion.”

We must admit that one of this town’s female reporters brought the matter to our attention. We’d seen the ads, but the Tribune’s shameful failing hadn’t registered. We asked Yuenger if he’d also needed to be enlightened. “I hope I can be given credit enough for recognizing that on my own,” he said firmly.