War coverage can bring out the best in journalists, but it can also underscore the worst in contemporary American journalism. In the current Iraqi war we have been stirred by images of American troops rumbling through the desert or firing on and capturing Iraqi Fedayeen in Baghdad, policing the distribution of food in Umm Qasr or rescuing P.O.W. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital. An old CBS show, which recreated great historical events, was titled "You Are There." This time we actually were.
Yet amid all the cheerleading for American soldiers, journalists have generally given short shrift to many of the nuances of this war - in part, because it is difficult to convey them and in part, one suspects, because reporters know viewers don't really want the nuances or the complexities. Like moviegoers, they want the catharsis, and the media have been all too eager to oblige. What we have lost in the media's rush to make the war into a war movie are things like the context in which the nation of Iraq was fabricated by the British after World War I and what that portends for the future; the wild daily mood swings among Iraqis from gratitude to America to feral hatred of her; the tangle of suspicion and conspiracy that has led many Iraqis to believe, incredibly, that President Bush made a deal with Saddam and that the dictator is now safely hidden in the United States; the growing force of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq; and perhaps, above all, the relationship between Saddam and terrorists and between Saddam and weapons of mass destruction - which were, after all, the reasons the President gave for our going to war.
It is highly unlikely that any of these issues will be revisited in the media because they are so much less satisfying than the triumphs, even though this sort of analysis may be more important in helping us understand what is happening now in Iraq and what is likely to happen there during the coming occupation. One can't blame reporters either. They have been put in the excruciating position of having to balance their own patriotism against their journalistic instincts to tell stories honestly, whether the public wants to hear them or not. No one wants to puncture the balloon - more, no one wants to be accused of puncturing it - so it is no wonder that journalism usually loses out to patriotism, especially when jingoism seems so popular and remunerative. But media that only give the public what it wants and refuse to recognize nuances may be committing a dereliction of duty. Or put another way, honest journalism, one that respects complexity and one that analyzes as well as tells, is a form of patriotism too.
You can catch Neal Gabler on FOX News Watch Sat. at 6:30pm ET.