This is mostly a rant about how television “news” operates. If you’ve never watched news programs on television or if you do watch and like what you are seeing, this is probably not the essay you want to read. On the other hand, it is really easy for me to write, because nearly all the writing has been done by Jill Ciment in her novel Heroic Measures, which has recently been made into a movie, Five Flights Up. The role of the media—the way they work a story without actually providing any information about it—is prominent in the book. In the movie, not so much.
When I started watching the news on television, I watched “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” featuring Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. It was fifteen minutes long. NBC announced plan to extend it to thirty minutes and someone asked Brinkley what he thought about that. He didn’t oppose it directly, but he did remark that some days, there are really not thirty minutes of news. Jill Ciment’s story is, in large part, a story of how they have solved Brinkley’s dilemma.
Let’s start with the last of the clips I have taken from the novel and which I have used as the title.
“Stay tuned,” says the newscaster, “next up, the results of tonight’s poll Did the Media Go too Far? and an exclusive interview with Pamir’s girlfriend from rehab, Debbie Twitchell.”
My answer to that question is a resounding Yes! The media did go too far. Further, they went too far down a road where they should never have gone at all if “news” is their business. If generating viewership and thereby advertising dollars is their business, then we’d have to say that they handled it pretty well.
Here is the event that starts the media journey down “the road.”
“The tanker jackknifed; it’s blocking all in-bound lanes,” Ruth continues. “Police don’t know if it was an accident or if the driver swerved on purpose. The mayor is asking everyone to remain calm and to not drive into Manhattan tonight.
Last night’s graphic—the truck’s headlamps as seen by the night-vision robot with Danger in the Tunnel splashed across it—appears on the screen. The morning newscaster, the blond in Washington, D.C., promises that after the station break she’ll be right back with an exclusive interview with the truck driver’s family and friends.
So “Danger” is the first issue. Certainly there is no denying that. It’s a truck full of flammable liquid. Of course it is dangerous. Now we go to “interviewing the family.”
The truck driver’s uncle and mother have faces like walnuts, shiny tacks for eyes. They’re standing on a snowy sidewalk before a row house in Queens. Behind them, neighbors jockey for a position on the television screen. The mother wears a massive black garment under an overcoat and a headscarf, though Alex and Ruth can’t tell if the scarf is worn for warmth or for religious conviction. It looks like something their grandmothers might have worn. The uncle, a stout man with a black mustache as big as a pocket comb, reads a statement in a stiff guttural accent that goes slack with emotion: “Abdul Pamir is a devout, gentle, and caring son, husband, father, uncle, brother, and nephew. He was born in Uzbekistan, and became a proud American two years ago. We want him to come home safely.”
Danger, Will Robinson! The truck driver is a foreigner. He is an Uzbek, which means, among other things, that he was recently part of the USSR. His parents are “foreign-looking.” That’s why the “massive black garment” on the mother and the “black mustache as big as a pocket comb” on the father are included. A “headscarf for religious reasons” suggests Islam, as does the name Abdul. We have gone well past the flammability of the truck’s cargo now and are approaching the flammability of American xenophobia.
Alex turns on the television: Live Press Conference pulses in the screen’s upper corner. Camera lights, as bright as competing suns, irradiate a makeshift stage in the lobby at city hall. A burly man, captioned FBI Spokesman, the short mayor, and the buzz-cut police chief in full regalia approach a lectern crowned by microphones. The burly spokesman reads a statement: “At eight twenty-two, the aqua-bomb detector finished its sweep of the tank. As of this hour, we believe there is no bomb.” Barrages of questions are hailed at him, but he ignores them. “We’re asking New Yorkers to stay on high alert until the driver’s in custody.” The mayor leans into the microphones. “Keep your eyes and ears open, but go about your lives. Soon as the city engineers give the go-ahead, mine will be the first car through the tunnel. We will not take questions at this time.”
Visually, we have the mayor, a burly man identified as an FBI spokesman and the police chief in full regalia. As to “information,” we learn that they have sent a bomb detector to determine whether there is a bomb attached to this “jack-knifed” semi, whose driver has fled the scene. Everyone is asked to stay on high alert. For what exactly is not specified.
And that was the good part. That was “news.” Now we get “reaction to the news.”
The screen bisects into halves—the basset-eyed newscaster in New York and the blonde in Washington. “What they’re not saying,” the blonde says, “is that Pamir might be wearing the bomb and that’s why they didn’t find one in the truck.”
“You’re right, Kat, the device could be on him and he could be anywhere at this point.”
I think that the “they” in “what they are not saying” is scary, although she might have meant just the FBI, the police, and the mayor. Also, “not saying” is scary. Why are they not saying something that we need to know? The line between “not saying” and “withholding” is a very fine line. And then there is the question of a bomb. Why would he be wearing a bomb? I think it is because his name is Abdul Pamir and his family is from Uzbekistan.
“GOOD MORNING, EVERYBODY,” SAYS THE basset—eyed newscaster. “Before I bring on my first guest, a forensic psychologist and consultant for Homeland Security, to help answer the question—Is Pamir a suicide bomber or not?—lct’s see what the American people think. Here’s how our viewers responded to this morning’s polling question. Seventy-seven percent say yes, Pamir is a suicide bomber, twelve percent say no, and eleven percent isn’t sure. We’ll be right back to see if the experts agree.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter very much what the answer to the question is. It’s the question that matters. It pairs “Pamir” and “suicide bomber.” We might ask why it matters what people think, remembering that all they know is what the media have told them, but, of course, it matters a great deal to the station that people feel they have been asked and also that they keep on watching this particular station to see whether others agree with them. And if it weren’t a fact—a hard clear fact—then why would they have experts there to talk about it? A forensic psychologist? Homeland Security? Please.
The basset-eyed newscaster’s face is as large as the moon. He wears the expression of an oracle about to make a prediction. Across his brow is written Breaking News—Target: New York City.
New York City is now a target. OK.
“The FBI has Pamir cornered nearby in a Bed Bath and Beyond,” Alex tells her. “They have one on the Upper East Side?”
“It’s just around the corner,” the moon-faced guard pipes in.
“Does he have a bomb?” Ruth asks.
“He has hostages,” Alex says.
The garment fades and the basset-eyed newscaster takes over the screen. “Only fifty-two percent of our viewers say they’d come out if their mother called. ‘What do the experts think?”
He’s turns to the double-chinned forensic psychologist from this morning. Six hours under the hot lights and her lipstick looks as if it’s melting. “The suicide bomber believes he’s doing this for his mother,” she says.
The cast is still the same. There are telephoto shots from circling helicopters. Pamir has taken hostages in the kitchenware section of Bed, Bath and Beyond. His mother is standing outside, so there is something to see, even if it is the same loop they have been showing for half an hour. The forensic psychologist is still in the studio. The public is still being queried about questions for which they have no knowledge at all.
A bullhorn blasts, but before Ruth can make out what’s being said the words break into echoes against the buildings. Pamir lowers his hands and begins struggling to open his coat, a puffy, hooded gray parka that almost reaches his knees. He tugs at the zipper, but he can’t seem to undo it. The teeth appear to be caught on something. In his panic to get the coat open, he pulls on the zipper as if it is a rip- cord and he is in freefall. Ruth can’t tell if the camera is running in slow motion, or her mind is, but Pamir seems to be fighting with his zipper for an eternity.
Suddenly, white feathers appear to hang in the air all around him. Only when the feathers settle does Ruth realize Pamir’s ripped his parka in two to get it off. He pulls what remains of it over his head. Ruth can see he isn’t strapped with explosives.
The bullhorn barks again, and Pamir tosses his coat into the street. He peels off his sweater, unbuttons his shirt, and throws them on top. Clad only in a T-shirt, he slowly rises to his feet and removes hi sneakers and socks, flings them into the pile, too. “The pants,” the bullhorn barks. He undoes his belt, zipper, and steps out of his pants. Shivering, he kicks them away with his bare foot.
He pulls his T-shirt over his head, and leaves his hands up in the air, but the bullhorn’s not satisfied. It barks and barks until he takes 0ff his underwear and lies down on the ground, spread-eagle. The station discreetly covers his derriere with what looks like a smear of Vaseline.
This is great TV. The “terrorist” is now forced to strip naked and lie on the cold pavement. I can’t think why they would bother with a trial.
“WITNESSES SWEAR THEY SAW A BOMB UNDER Pamir’s coat,” says the evening newscaster, a prematurely white-haired man with a ferret-like face. “Dozens of people described the exact same explosive device down to the number of dynamite sticks and the detonator button’s color. Now the mayor tells us Pamir never had a bomb. Was it a mass hallucination? What did these witnesses really see?” he asks his guest, an intense, thin woman with flyaway hair captioned, “Author of Mass Hysteria.”
One of my favorites. Witnesses agree that they saw something they could not have seen and which the mayor says was never there at all. What shall we do? I know. Let’s bring in a woman who has written about mass hysteria. The “story” has gone away. The experts that can opine about the story have gone away. All that is left, is an expert who can comment on the fantasy the media have devised and explain it as a mass glitch. Still there is no one to talk about market share and the cost of advertising. Dear me. And now we arrive where we began.
“Stay tuned,” says the newscaster, “next up, the results of tonight’s poll Did the Media Go too Far?
You could say that. The only consistent element is the “stay tuned” part. Is there a Video-Industrial Complex. Is it too soon to start worrying about it? Don’t forget to cast your vote and tune in at 11:00 to see how many of your fellow Americans agree with you. We’ll step aside now for some messages.