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TELEVISION HOWARD ROSENBERG

Wars should end like miniseries: quick, tidy

March 28, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Hey, "War Talk" here.

Thanks for those calls and e-mails, and your goggled war-in-the-desert watcher agrees absolutely. What's with this plodding miniseries that's going on so long that I have sand in my shoes? I shouldn't mix metaphors, but talk about a slow boat to China. I ran out of popcorn days ago. Why isn't this war more like Warner Bros., the front more like "Fear Factor"? Is there a director out there behind the camera, someone who knows how to say, "Cut!"

You're like me. If you didn't crave action, you wouldn't sit gaga in front of your TV watching fleets of cops chase fugitive motorists on L.A. freeways. And action we've seen in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, long-range coverage of a few battles and lots of close-up live pictures of "embedded" reporters checking in from aircraft carriers, standing tall in blinding dust and riding toward Baghdad on tanks like hi-yo cowboys. Is NBC's David Bloom something or not? Love the wind machine whipping his hair. And what about those reporters in Kuwait City doing stand-ups in gasmasks?

But hello! I agree with the tone of some of the news coverage I've watched: After a little more than a week of this, why isn't the war won? No wonder viewers loved World War II in HBO's "Band of Brothers." It went just 10 hours. And Richard Burton and his fellow Brits took less than 90 minutes to finish off Rommel in "The Desert Rats."

So what's the problem? Let's gong this to a finish right now.

Don't President Bush and his generals know Americans are impatient for fast wind-ups? It's the speed thing they get from newscasts, where stories are hiccuped in sound bites and rarely run longer than a minute, and from interviews whose subjects are told to wrap it up in 30 seconds. Also from prime time, where problems, however epic, are resolved neatly before the final credits.

Why should war be different? When do these final credits roll? Even televised police pursuits ultimately deliver closure, if you can deaden your brain long enough to wait for it.

The U.S. government blames media for creating unrealistic expectations of a short, snappy war -- a little blood, a little bluster, then plant Saddam Hussein in one of his bunkers -- and the media blames the government. MSNBC did something really sneaky Wednesday when it repeatedly re-ran Vice President Dick Cheney asserting on "Meet the Press" just before the war that Iraqi forces wouldn't offer much resistance. No wonder he's just No. 2.

That doesn't let the media off the hook, though. I watch daily press briefings by the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command in Qatar, and many of the questions to military leaders and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld project urgency. As in: Why so slow? As in: With Iraqis fighting back and even taking prisoners, shouldn't you change your battle plan? As in: Why are you dragging out a war that should have been over in 24 hours?

Some of those TV guys were misled by their own coverage when at the start of the ground campaign TV showed reporters with tank convoys said to be "dashing" or "racing" toward Baghdad as if on Rollerblades. Yeah, yeah, they're near the city now, but it's taken more than a week, bummer, compared with Jack Bauer saving us from nuclear holocaust in less than a day on Fox's "24." And next, troops will have to fight their way in.

President Bush said Thursday the war "will last however long it takes," so let's give him a break. But a week from today, it better be history or we'll all be plenty mad.

Back in a minute.

More "War Talk" here, and my take on the coverage.

I love the "embedding" of media with combat units that raises the bar of war reporting, love the technology that generates amazing instant images, including troops saying hello to mom one minute, heading off to battle the next. How surreal to observe war in Iraq from Los Angeles in real time, even if these are just snapshots in a larger scrapbook.

"60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt, whose career spans the life of TV news, says he's awed by the media's performance in Iraq. "Let's hope," he added on CNN about the indelible coverage, "that when it's all over, it's produced more than a stunning television show."

Not entirely stunning. Some of those bringing you this story on TV believe their mission as journalists is to pluck viewers' heartstrings like banjos. Take Wednesday morning when CNN anchor Paula Zahn was on sentry duty when the National Anthem was sung as the president entered MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to rally the troops and talk up the war in a pep talk all major networks aired live.

"If it doesn't stir you," Zahn said about the anthem, "I don't know what will as the U.S. faces this crossroads in this crisis."

I appreciated Zahn thinking enough of viewers to advise them how to feel. Actually, though, I wasn't stirred and wondered if I was being disloyal until I got a grip and realized that the real crises here are sanctimonious TV types who cross a line when insinuating themselves and their opinions into stories.

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