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THE 75TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS | TELEVISION / Howard
Rosenberg

Oscar walks tall; TV news stumbles

March 24, 2003|Howard Rosenberg

"YOU probably noticed there was no fancy red carpet tonight," said Academy Awards host Steve Martin with mock stoniness about the light-on-frills Oscars. "That'll send 'em a message."

It was fitting that ABC televised the Academy Awards on Sunday as the war's body count mounted inside Iraq and the day's loudest boom was a grim video of dead and captive American soldiers made by Iraqi TV. One that U.S. networks declined to air.

Hollywood and military combat have a history, most notably during World War II, when the movie industry brought all its morale-boosting power to bear in a convoy of films opposing totalitarianism. Out they came, one after another, from Bogie romancing Bergman in Rick's Cafe to heroic sub captain Cary Grant in "Destination Tokyo."

As this Oscar telecast was expected to affirm, though, Destination Baghdad is much less harmonious.

Out they came, one after another inside the Kodak Theatre, Sunday's Coalition of the Unwilling -- all, uh, several of them -- objecting to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on an evening when black crepe was expected to be the statement of choice. And when ABC News cut-ins by Peter Jennings ("The war grinds on ... ") mingled with host Martin's amiably bent, oft-hilarious humor, which rarely drew the response it deserved, almost as if much of the audience felt uncomfortable laughing. Was it pain over the war?

In fact, how much of war's pain can Americans tolerate? Not the full dose, America's TV networks indicated Sunday.

Daily live footage of the invasion of Iraq is historic and often dramatic. Never has war been covered so intimately and instantaneously, thanks to advances in technology and the Pentagon's decision to "embed" reporters and camera crews with combat units. Access to troops and action is extraordinary.

But close-up Iraq TV pictures of five captured American soldiers being questioned by their captors near the sprawled bodies of four of their comrades are too grisly for viewers to handle. That, at least, appeared to be the misguided view of U.S. television networks. In other words, Americans should not have full exposure to the impact of the war U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq.

The Pentagon said the video, from state-run Iraqi TV, violates the Geneva Convention's rules for treatment of prisoners of war, and chastised Qatar's Al-Jazeera's television for airing it.

CNN announced Sunday that it would limit its own visual coverage to "a single image with no identifying features." And NBC did later show one soldier being questioned in the video because "his family was aware of his capture." NBC said it withheld other portions because they were "gruesome and exploitative."

And that makes them incompatible with war? On what planet?

"It's going to be difficult for Americans to hear of this and say, 'Why aren't we bombing Baghdad?' " said MSNBC co-anchor John Seigenthaler.

He wondered if Al-Jazeera's airing of the video hadn't played "into the hands of the Iraqis."

Opposition to running the video was not unanimous in network circles. On Sunday, ABC's Ted Koppel publicly disagreed with his network's decision to withhold the video. "War is a dreadful thing, and to sanitize it too much is a mistake," he told anchor Charles Gibson in New York from Iraq, where he'd been traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division. "I think to turn our faces away from that is a mistake," said Koppel, who was barely visible while silhouetted against the night sky. "Sometimes we have an obligation to remind people in a graphic way that war is a dreadful thing."

By withholding the pictures, in fact, the networks denied Americans the kind of information they may need to make a judgment about this war. In everyone's mind, of course, was what happened in 1993 when Somalis dragged the bodies of American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, causing such revulsion among Americans that President Clinton pulled U.S. troops from there shortly thereafter.

There was also the sensitivity issue, consideration for the families and loved ones who would find watching this excruciating. But as Koppel said, ABC had shown bodies in the past in ways that blurred their identities.

How far that seemed from the political winds swirling around Sunday's Oscar telecast, in which producer Gil Cates delivered a nice, crisp, economical telecast in tune with the times, highlighted by an Oscar family portrait, with past winners side by side on stage.

There were numerous generic calls for peace on earth. As far as the war went, though, the evening's message was mostly muted, with such noted war opponents as Susan Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand doing their stints on stage without mentioning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Instead of a parade of protesters, though, there was just a trickle, the first coming more than 90 minutes into the telecast when Gael Garcia Bernal, who introduced the nominated song from "Frida," claimed that if Frida Kahlo "were here tonight, she would be on our side and against the war."

But a bit later, Michael Moore arrived on stage to accept his documentary Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine" like Kramer bursting into Jerry's apartment in "Seinfeld." Not known for his restraint, he shouted: "Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you!"

It was Adrien Brody, though, winner of an acting Oscar for "The Pianist," who delivered the most moving war-related speech. "Whomever you believe in, if it's God or Allah, may he watch over you, and let's pray for a swift resolution," he said.

Which was more memorable even than removing the red carpet.

*

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard .rosenberg@latimes.com.

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