In his essay ‘The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war‘ (The New Yorker, January 20, 2011), Peter Maass provides, by way of context and background, a useful deflationary account of the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. The statue’s downfall had always had a stage-managed feel to it, even at the time; Maass’ account makes clear it was a journalist’s event through and through, with few Iraqis in the square, and even those outnumbered by war correspondents, cameramen and the like, and cheering only when the cameras panned to them.
The over-the-top, prematurely celebratory response–of the Bush administration–to the statue’s toppling, part of the delusional description of the war, one made especially poignant by our knowledge now, of the mayhem that lay ahead for Iraq, was egged on by the media:
The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”
The invocations of ‘seminal,’ ‘indelible,’ Berlin Wall,’ ‘power,’ ‘historic,’ in these breathless descriptions of ‘ a minor moment in a long war’ are galling. They serve as good evidence for a thesis I have privately entertained for a long time: rare is the journalist who does not self-servingly succumb to the temptation to describe a reported event in precisely these terms because doing so increases their sense of self-importance as well. After all, if it’s a historic, momentous, seminal moment, then aren’t the journalists reporting on it carrying out equally momentous work, equally deserving of their place in history? Perhaps they should be written about next, made the subjects of detailed reportage, praised for their presence at The Event?
Descriptions like those cited above are thinly veiled exercises in self-glorification. This was never more clear to me than during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Then, confronted by one breathless television reporter and talking head after another, it rapidly became clear to me that what they all seemed to be desperately hoping for was an impeachment of a US president on their watch. Imagine: the memoirs you could write, detailing your role in the coverage of this ‘crisis’, the blow-by-blow accounts you could detail of every manufactured twist and turn, every ‘intervention’, every skillful and perceptive and brilliant report you provided, as you expertly shepherded The Event and its actors towards its final, earth-shattering conclusion. I was there; this is what I saw.
It’s hard, apparently, to not want to be part of the story.