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William Rivers Pitt: No Bottom to the Barrel

No Bottom to the Barrel

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Saturday 24 February 2007

I awoke near dawn on Thursday, crawled to my desk with coffee in hand, and began my daily morning ritual: blazing through twenty different newspapers to see what was happening across the nation and the world. Two stories immediately jumped out at me:

1. The Washington Post rang a big bell with the headline, "British Move Renews Iraq War Doubts in U.S.," and with the kicker reading, "Just as President Bush increases troop strength, his main partner in Iraq war seeks closure." The Coalition of the Leaving has, all of a sudden, a surprising new member.

2. The New York Times led with a truly wrenching headline: "National Guard May Undertake Iraq Duty Early." The kicker read, "The Pentagon plans to send more than 14,000 reservists back next year, shortening their off-duty time for President Bush's buildup, officials said." Dovetail this with the report above and the conclusion is unavoidable: Bush is throwing thousands more US soldiers into the maw of Iraq while his closest ally is heading for the exits.

I made my way through several more papers, including the Boston Globe, the LA Times, the Guardian, the AP, UPI, Reuters, the BBC, along with several other news outlets from all compass points. Finally, like a fool, I clicked over to the CNN web site to see what their daily offering of dreck smelled like.

This was a bad idea.

My higher brain functions were momentarily paralyzed by the lead headline, "Ringmaster Judge Faces Flak." It was almost like a Zen koan; my mind just stopped. Judge? Flak? Did the judge presiding over the Libby trial have a meltdown or something? How was this story important, or even vaguely pertinent, to any kind of commonly- understood reality?

It wasn't important, at least not to me. This story was, of course, focusing on the hearing to decide who would gain possession of the body of the recently departed Z-list celebrity, Anna Nicole Smith. CNN, in its wisdom, felt the need to do a full spread on this random, anonymous judge whose rotten luck delivered this bag of nonsense to his courtroom.

Yeah, I know, no one with any real media awareness should be surprised by this kind of swill. Neither am I, in the abstract. A fair portion of the reason I draw breath involves my disgust and disdain for CNN, for the other "news" purveyors of like quality, for their feigned piety of objectivity, for the generational damage these multi-billion-dollar snow-blowers have done, allowed, participated in, profited by.

Even though I'm all too aware of these realities, I can still be left wordstruck by the awesome vapidity of the "news" every once in a while. It takes a cynic who still clings to a dollop of hope and optimism, perhaps, to still be awed by the grim fact that there is actually no bottom to the barrel.

They got me again on Thursday. Hard as it is to imagine, CNN is apparently attempting to transmogrify this random judge, and the entire story surrounding Smith's demise, into the OJ Simpson Story 2.0. Remember the famous OJ judge, who was such a focus for so long? I am perhaps alone on this, but "OJ" was the first thing I thought of after my brain regained functionality. There was this judge's picture on CNN, and the headline, and the detailed kicker presented as actual news, and I flashed right back to 1994.

The Times and Post, for all their myriad flaws and culpability, carried a slew of morning stories Thursday that actually affect us all. It was Dana Priest and the Post that ripped open the Walter Reed/Building 18 horrors just this past weekend. The Post drives me mad several times a week, and the Times has Judy "WMD" Miller around its neck like a millstone, but at least half the time they report the real stuff.

CNN, on the other hand, wants the probate/inquest over the death of a semi-celebrity to become another self-perpetuating story, a national soap opera that will spare the "journalists" from dealing with anything of actual substance. Ever see the movie "John Q"? As the plot culminates, a reporter on the scene realizes his coverage of the story will make his career, and says, "This is my white Bronco." Platoons of reporters are today thinking the same thing about this Smith story, and CNN appears ready to ride it as far as it can.

Can CNN turn this Smith story into another orgy of rampant celebrity worship? Can they fashion breathlessly-repeated gossip-mongering about overdoses and DNA and paternity and burials into the hood- ornament "news" story for the next year? Time will tell, but you can bet your whole ass they'll try.

Why? The editors and anchors in today's TV newsrooms, the important ones and decision-makers, were 1994's rookie reporters on the OJ beat, just getting started, unknown, covering a story that eventually made their careers. It became, in the end, a frictionless machine; the media frenzy during OJ eventually created its own inertia, a gravity well of salacious garbage that captured all matter and bent the light. Many of the respected "news" faces on TV today enjoy their position because of that orgiastic void ... so, yeah, place your bets as to whether they'll reach for the same brass ring again, if they can. I know where my chips will hit the felt.

If stories like this are so dumb, then why write about it? I feel, sometimes, that I have no choice. Stories like this are central to the process of journalistic dissolution that affects us all. It has been an ongoing phenomenon that was greatly accelerated during Gulf War I (when CNN, and brave Wolfie on his roof, and the newsfolk in general, all abandoned basic journalistic principle in allowing the Pentagon to stage-manage, edit, redact and control any and all public war news). It is a dissolution that learned to walk and talk during OJ, hatching a slew of our modern-day "journalists" along the way. It is a dissolution that grew fangs which bit hard and deep during the interminable, hidebound nonsense of Whitewater, Monica and impeachment.

It is a dissolution any savvy media observer knows how to label properly. "Infotainment" is the name of the game, where great swaths of data are offered in the absence of depth, white noise at the water cooler and the copier, stories with the substance of a haymaker punch thrown in a shadow-boxing match.

And again, yeah, I know, this is all (to make a bad pun) old news ... but God help me, I do sometimes dream that we might locate if possible, or construct if necessary, an actual bottom to the barrel. Mayhap I'm a simpleton for hoping it might be there somewhere, and a fool for also believing that a bottom can be built if none can be found.

It is this foolishness that exposes me, now and again, to the visceral media-delivered gut-twisting cramp of body and mind I endure when a screaming distraction or a deadly lie is uttered, repeated, augmented, espoused, preached and championed by the far reach of television. Sometimes, I simply can't help but feel the same rage, the scathing collision of writhing helplessness and omnivorous motivation, that got me into this whole thing in the first place.

I do, of course, feel like a total doofus whenever CNN, or some other feckless purveyor of high-def late-breaking televised lobotomization, manages to sucker-punch my sensibilities with one of these damnable idiot bombs ... but I am also thankful for it, in an odd way. I do not ever want to arrive at a moment when I cannot be moved to anger and action, even when the motivator is something as singularly insipid as the garbage that got me going Thursday morning.

Was there a bottom to be found in Friday morning's barrel? The Post and Times reported that Senate Democrats are going to try to repeal the Iraq War Resolution, which if successful, will completely redefine the parameters of this conflict. Pretty big story, right?

CNN's top two headlines for Friday read, "Smith's Baby Gets Mom's Body" and "Weepy Judge, Woozy Lawyer Create Court Drama."

Nope. No bottom here.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.

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