Darkness and Light

As the media went to war, you could feel the whole culture fall into a dark, foreboding kind of mood. War always has this effect, but this time the gloom has more bite. The hundreds of embedded journalists aren't just reporting on this war; they're serving as surrogates for all civilians. And they've given the story a visceral immediacy, a that-could-be-me feeling that's been missing from most wars of the last quarter-century.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, it's already clear this war will not seem abstract and unreal here at home, as both the last Persian Gulf War and the recent Afghanistan war did. The hacks are with the troops and so, vicariously, are we. In this way, our foreboding is paradoxically good news, a sign of authentic progress.

There have been other signs of media progress lately, but nobody seems to have noticed. When speaking of the media, it's become fashionable to roll your eyes, allude bitterly to the cable chat-fests or some embarrassing reality-TV show, and shrug the subject away. Because, my dear, the media nowadays are so sensational, so polarizing, so stupid and unsophisticated, they're not even worth discussing. But they're destroying us.

It's weird so many intelligent people can continue to believe this, especially after the last few months, when coverage of the war story has been anything but stupid. In fact, it's been remarkably subtle and sophisticated, a highly complex story offered up in all its complexity. And if you believe the polls, the same public that flocks to reality shows has taken in this intricately layered story and come away with a surprisingly nuanced take on this war.

You think I'm dreaming? Think back on the pre-war debate, and name a single point of view that didn't get its due. The war is all about overcoming an evil tyrant. It's all about oil and American imperialism. It's all about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It's all about Israel. It's all about George Bush's strange messianic certainty, and Tony Blair's. And so on. These arguments and many others are out there in profusion, and have been for months.

Here's who had their say on the war question: everybody. From the most-powerful columnists and anchor-people to obscure citizens who marched in protest and found themselves quoted in major media outlets. Our most serious intellectuals had their say, pro and con, and so did our less-serious celebrities. Turn on CNN one recent Sunday, and you could catch Bianca Jagger earnestly debating actor Ron Silver on the merits of war.

Then there was the equally earnest meta-debate about whether celebrities deserve to have their say at all. On the day Bush issued his 48-hour ultimatum to Iraq, the Los Angeles Times ran a column by actor Martin Sheen defending the right of embattled movie stars to speak out "against an unjust war." Next to it was a column by an Iraqi refugee attacking the stars: "When Iraq is finally liberated, these actors will learn that they have never spoken for the people of Iraq."

Thoughtful argument, which went out of style a good decade ago, came roaring back. Outside talk radio and other ideological ghettos, there was a stunning amount of line-crossing and tribal heterodoxy. When the pope came out against the war, he got huge coverage for it. Likewise Hillary Clinton, for being pro-war. Last week, The New York Times ran a story headlined: "Some of Intellectual Left's Longtime Doves Taking on Role of Hawks." The nation's editorial pages were all over the map, with some leftish papers supporting war while rightish ones had doubts. And in case you didn't notice this surprising media phenomenon, the media reported it. On the eve of Bush's war decision, Editor & Publisher magazine surveyed American newspapers and found that 18 were for war, 24 wanted more diplomacy, and one paper—The Boston Globe—couldn't make up its mind. Many papers were in what the Los Angeles Times called "an anxious middle ground, an ideology-free zone" of editorial ambivalence and flux.

Some media types flat-out rejected the idea of certainty. Last week, The New Yorker magazine—which has surprised many with its pro-war leanings—ran a memorable little essay by Hendrik Hertzberg, who noted that while Bush and those who oppose him each possessed moral certainty on the war, "Not everyone is so sure. Both among those who, on balance, support the coming war and among those who, on balance, oppose it are a great many who hold their views in fear and trembling, haunted by the suspicion that the other side might be right after all."

"I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote more than 150 years ago. The line kept coming back to me as I watched the war coverage this week. Immediately after Bush issued his ultimatum on national television, you could surf around and pick up an absolutely dizzying array of fact, opinion, nuance, shading. Here was Peter Jennings seated over the on-screen motto, "When Diplomacy Fails," intelligently interviewing an embedded correspondent, with those coolly flitting Canadian eyelids that might have telegraphed disdain for the war and might not—it was hard to know-while over on MSNBC, Brian Williams was all aglow from Kuwait, the picture of gung-ho, Yank journo-optimism. Generals and admirals were everywhere, retired and actives. James Woolsey was on one channel, George Mitchell on another. George Soros, Robert Dallek, William Bennett, Bill Richardson—an endless parade of war-pundit muck-a-mucks.

And now our attention is on the reporters. Some embedded, others not, all reporting back from their front seats, which are also ours. Dark times, sure. But for the American media, this could be one spectacularly bright moment.