Broadcast Lies

Broadcast Lies

Broadcast Lies
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 16 2002 4:03 PM

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Michael,

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I actually think there is still room to lead us through the WTC morass, by the hand if necessary. There will always been the prurient rubbernecking aspect to disasters, people who just can't get enough gore. But I don't think that's what's going on here. A couple weeks ago, I saw the video of the murder/beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I considered not bothering. I asked other friends whether they'd seen it, and most of them said they couldn't bring themselves to. I watched it. It was, as advertised, almost unwatchably awful. But I thought—and still do think—it's important to know what and who one is dealing with. Most media sanitize the news to such a degree that the ugliness of it all gets scrubbed away, and so more easily digested and eventually forgotten. My gut tells me the Pearl video is an important document. And so are films about the WTC. You and I were both close to the WTC that day. I remember my own horror reflected in your expression. Every time I pick up another book of photographs, or see another video clip, the immediacy of the horror—the smells, tastes, and sight of it—flood back. I'm not a junkie for it.  But there is too much going on around us, here and abroad, that is a direct consequence of those moments, and there is something dutiful in reminding myself and reminding myself exactly what we saw—before that too gets scrubbed and Prime Timed away.

But the fiction angle to news is both an old and fresh story—either way it's important and (mostly) untold. We've all seen Network and Wag the Dog, but we were somehow insulated by the fact that those were just movies, fictions, and we could rest easy that the Real News doesn't operate that way. Well, it does—sometimes. Your stories from Afghanistan are disturbing. Let me add one: In Islamabad in mid-October, I waded into a fairly hostile but generally controlled crowd, the kind beamed back to American audiences daily in those days. There was a secondary march that peeled off and headed down the street, and I followed it. So did everyone else. Maybe 15,000 Pakistanis, it was hard to tell. There was jostling; there were the typical "Death to America" cries. It was a crystal blue day, beautiful, I remember. The crowd assembled in a large intersection where the shouts died down, and everyone sat down, cross-legged, to listen to an imam standing on a truck. The intersection turned into a huge classroom, and the speeches were more despairing than rageful, and the crowd became a clutch of desperate students. But off to the side, there was a group of the only 50 troublemakers there, mostly teen-agers with smirks on their faces and plastic guns and Bin Laden posters in their hands. They were screaming. In the middle of the small crowd was a CNN correspondent, and 10 paces away stood his cameraman. The correspondent was shouting into his mike above the noise, reporting back as though from Normandy Beach. If the camera had pulled back, what it would have beamed back to Atlanta and beyond was this: a small clutch of pissed-off but mostly jubilant thugs, waving and shouting toward the camera (I think they may have even burned something), just begging to have their pictures taken. They were surrounded by a sea of uplifted faces, men sitting cross-legged on the ground, listening and wondering what to do next. When the speeches ended, everyone went home, peacefully, many of them arm in arm. Back in the hotel that night, I turned on the TV and watched the CNN report of that demonstration. On the screen: fists, cries, flames, smoke, the raised voice of the correspondent. There was none, and I mean none, of the rest of the story. The more complicated—but true—story. What everyone at home saw was, essentially, a lie.

Peter

Peter Landesman is a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. His nonfiction appears in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker.