Awar that has been fought on television and through television reached its tipping point yesterday -- or a toppling point at least. Live video from Baghdad showed crowds pull down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein, which fell from its pedestal to the earth with a pathetic and ignominious crash, taking the Hussein regime with it.
It was, said Peter Jennings of ABC News, "a deeply symbolic act," and naturally it was replayed over and over again throughout the morning, each time seeming to further seal Saddam's doom. There was such a cheering, resounding finality to it that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sounded overly cautious when he declared later at a news briefing that "the regime has been dealt a severe blow."
Severe blow? It looked more like a decapitation. As usual throughout the coverage of the war, now just three weeks old, pictures spoke louder than words -- but not necessarily more truthfully. Baghdad and the Hussein regime seemed to have fallen with the statue, but CBS viewers knew that, only a mile away, in the eastern part of the city, U.S. troops were exchanging fire with Iraqis loyal to Hussein, and reporter Byron Pitts was doing a perilous play-by-play via telephone.
One story was pictures; one story was sound. The pictures showed the progress of the toppling, with the statue falling in two stages, at first hanging onto the platform by its bronze ankles. Equally dramatic was the voice of Pitts straining to be heard above incoming gunfire that he said was from AK-47s. "We have decent cover," Pitts said, thus somewhat reassuring his bosses back in New York regarding his own safety.
Hours later, Fox News Channel reported that "there is still fighting in parts of Baghdad," but CBS viewers had been made well aware of that while watching the crowd topple the statue.
Fox placed the moment of topplement at 10:48 a.m. Eastern time, CBS said the statue fell at 10:49 a.m., and ABC made it 10:50 a.m. Whatever, it fell, and it made great TV in the process. During the lengthy toppling process, viewers saw a U.S. Marine place an American flag and then an Iraqi flag over the statue's face. After the crash, gleeful citizens, apparently mostly Shiite Muslims, dragged the statue's head through the streets, one young man riding on it triumphantly. Later it could be seen bearing a gaping hole after having been bashed with rocks, sticks and shoes.
It was a good day for the war effort, for war coverage, and for ABC News, which beat its competitors onto the air by a few minutes, interrupting "Good Morning America" at 8:38 to show live pictures of American troops marching into Baghdad and officially beginning its special report, with Jennings anchoring, at 8:47. All the networks relied on video from Abu Dhabi television, al-Jazeera and pool cameras.
Of all the statues of Saddam Hussein scattered throughout the city, the crowds had conveniently picked one located across from the hotel where most of the media were headquartered. This was either splendid luck or brilliant planning on the part of the military.
Another battle was going on, however, between the Pentagon and CBS News. Dan Rather, the only one of the big three evening-news anchors positioned in the Mideast and a broadcaster who prides himself on plunging into danger zones wherever they may be, couldn't make it from Kuwait into Iraq to anchor the coverage there, and in fact had to do last night's "CBS Evening News" from Amman, Jordan, and not Baghdad as he had hoped.
"Good evening from the war zone," Rather said at the start of the broadcast. Later he told viewers, "We intend to broadcast from Baghdad tomorrow night."
Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "Evening News," blamed higher-ups at the Pentagon for throwing a monkey wrench into Rather's plans. "People on the ground in Kuwait tried several times to help us move forward," Murphy said, "but the front office kept saying 'No' and holding us back. It sort of mystifies us."
Murphy said he found the stiff-arming "both unfair and unreasonable."
"We didn't go out of our way asking for special treatment," he said. "Journalists not embedded with troops have been brought in and out on missions several times. But people always stopped us at the last minute." Asked to speculate whether Fox News, which has been the most gung-ho and pro-military in its coverage, might not have experienced such troubles, Murphy noted that though Fox's Geraldo Rivera broke the rules and gave away troop movements on the air, he'd been allowed back in anyway.
A Pentagon spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.
Instead of airing a special report, CBS kept its "Early Show" going into the early afternoon. The broadcast of course included the electrifying video of the statue being torn down. But CBS producers blundered in not carrying audio from the site -- the sound of the crowd's roar -- which could be heard clearly on the other networks.
Administration predictions that American troops would be greeted in Baghdad as liberators and that there would literally be dancing in the streets had already come true in footage aired before the statue's demise. But the toppling put a huge exclamation point at the end of the sentence. It was a resonant gesture in the best tradition of overthrowing tyranny and evoking iconic memories of everything from Lenin's statue being pulled down in Moscow at the end of the Cold War to a giant Nazi swastika being exploded as Berlin fell to, perhaps, the Munchkins celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz."
The war as televised had, after all, had its surreal aspects from the beginning -- reports of the possible death of Saddam Hussein being followed by rebuttal footage on Iraqi state television of Hussein wandering merrily through a friendly crowd, no one knowing for sure the vintage of the video.
There have even been, amid the horrors and tragedies of warfare, comic-opera aspects, as when the Iraqi minister of information materialized to deny that coalition forces had taken over Saddam International Airport, even though they were completely in control of it and had already renamed it Baghdad International Airport. The minister was conspicuously absent yesterday, and correspondents on all the networks noted that the Iraqi "minders" who normally follow them around wherever they go had failed to show up for work -- and presumably wouldn't be showing up ever again.
ABC was not only first on the air from Baghdad yesterday, it was the last network to sign off in the afternoon, after both NBC and CBS had gone back to sponsored programming. But ABC had its little troubles, too. Jennings could be heard on the air barking -- presumably at co-workers in the studio and the control room -- orders to be quiet during the moment when the statue actually fell. Later, technology failed Jennings when he first tried to reach a correspondent in Baghdad and got only silence, then called for another reporter in another location and got silence, then tried to turn to a reporter for Time magazine and got more silence.
"When people come up, they'll come up," Jennings sighed, and soon afterward the voice of Time reporter Simon Robinson finally got through. Unfortunately, Robinson described in considerable detail the toppling of the statue, apparently unaware that it had all been seen on live TV about 45 minutes earlier.
Richard Engel, a young and clearly unseasoned journalist whose reports for ABC have sometimes seemed sloppy and amateurish, began one report to Jennings by saying, "It has been an incredible day for me." Well, well -- stop the presses.
Though officials and reporters alike were quick to note yesterday that fierce fighting may still lie ahead, and that the war is not over, the American viewing public is bound to see that statue-toppling as a climax, or at least a hugely pivotal moment. Indeed, the reporters at Fox News were all but dancing in the streets themselves. "The Iraqis have finally realized that the jig is up here," said correspondent Jim Angle from Baghdad. Fox had footage, frequently replayed, of Mohammed Douri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, coming out of a building in New York and saying to a crowd of reporters, "The game is over. We hope that peace will prevail."
Rumsfeld acknowledged the media's role in the war during his opening remarks at the briefing. Addressing himself to embedded reporters on the scene, Rumsfeld said, "This is your opportunity to listen and report" stories of repression and deprivation told by Iraqi citizens who are no longer afraid to speak freely. And to the Iraqis he said, "This is your opportunity to tell [the reporters] your stories."
He was playing editor, and essentially enlisting journalists in the propaganda effort -- probably a superfluous gesture, after all the positive stories filed in the field, and not just on Fox. One legacy of the war will be months and months of debating, at seminars and on TV political talk shows, about the ethics of embedment, and whether the press was "used" by the military to keep the public feeling encouraged.
Symbols can work both ways, however. Having access to 24-hour-a-day war coverage also seemed to encourage a kind of manic-depressive response, with any setback seeming decisive -- at least until another victory of some kind could be transmitted and cheer everybody up again.
Obviously, this has been the most televised war in history. Journalists who complain about the policy of being invited to travel along with the troops risk being reminded of all the complaining the press did when it was denied access to battle during Operation Desert Storm. These issues will be wrangled over ad infinitum.
Fox, meanwhile, has been giving viewers a clear choice all along: A source of war news where almost everything is positive, where seldom (if ever) is heard a discouraging word. "What you are seeing," a Fox anchorman exultantly told viewers yesterday, ". . . are the sounds and sights of liberation, the liberation of the heart of the regime of Saddam Hussein! This is a regime of fear. It was based on fear. And apparently that fear is now gone."
Whatever the excesses of Fox's coverage, all the networks were filled with legitimately encouraging images yesterday -- a young Iraqi woman riding in a car and holding a sign that read, "Thank You, USA"; an Iraqi man holding a poster of Saddam Hussein and taking happy whacks at it with his shoe; Iraqi Americans marching in Dearborn, Mich., with American flags waving wildly to celebrate the liberation of Baghdad.
The worst may indeed be over. But the war of weapons and the war of images will both continue. "America is winning this war," Pitts said on the "Evening News" last night, "but she cannot end it, at least not yet."