Another Rathergate casualty

Howard Kurtz Media Notes points to this article in Salon which reports that CBS has shelved a detailed report on how the Bush administration either lied or was extremely credulous in its assessment of Saddam’s nuclear capacities. The irony here is that the report center’s around the forged documents that the Bush administration believed showed that Saddam was seeking to buy uranium from Niger. And after Rathergate it seems that CBS has decided that people in glass houses….

However, the official reason for the cancelation of the program is that CBS deems it inappropriate to broadcast such a program in an election year. This again points to the ongoing conflict between the game of objectivity, concerns over bias and the overarching project of the press as a fourth estate that produces an informed democracy.

The other irony of this debacle is that this detailed half hour report by 60 Minutes veteran Ed Bradly was originally slated for the September 8 slot but was bumped at the last minute for Rather’s report on Bush and the national guard because the producers thought they had a real scoop.

According to Salon the report doesn’t produce any major new information that isn’t already in the public domain, but it does do what 60 Minutes has always done: it produces a concise, convincing, well wrought narrative.

“Two years ago, Americans heard some frightening words from President Bush and his closest advisors,” Bradley said in his introduction of the now-shelved report. “Saddam Hussein, they said, could soon have a nuclear bomb. Of course, we now know that wasn’t true.” Not only did Saddam not have a nuclear program, Bradley said, but “he hadn’t for more than 10 years. How could the Bush administration be so wrong about something so important?”

The Salon report makes a very interesting point about the particular televisual production of this narrative:

The mysterious surfacing of the forged Niger documents, Bradley said, helped “explain why President Bush and his cabinet delivered the frightening message we all heard in the early autumn two years ago.” The broadcast then cut to video clips of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice making public statements with eerily similar wording:

“We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” Cheney said in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Cut to Rumsfeld: “We do now know that Saddam Hussein has been actively and persistently” pursuing nukes. Then, Rice, on a television talk show, insisted: “We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

By showing the video clips in rapid succession, the television piece conveyed, in a manner beyond the printed word, how deliberate and practiced was the administration’s sense of urgency.

Because this type of television narrative is extremely powerful, it is immediately criticised as biased in a way that a simple written or oral description of the same information would not necessarily be faulted. It is true that the impactful nature of the televisual medium can be harnessed to make things appear more convincing than they are, but in cases like this I don’t think that is the obvious conclusion.

In our debates about bias and objectivity I don’t think we have really yet come to terms with the visual grammar of television and film documentary. This became obvious in some of the more hysterical reactions to Michael Moore’s work. Moore is doing something quite different to news reports in the New York Times but people insist on judging him by the same ( already problematic) criteria.

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