Book review: “Ugly War, Pretty Package”

Deborah L. Jaramillo’s book, “Ugly War, Pretty Package” is a close analysis of the cable news coverage of the early days of the war in Iraq. Although CNN and Fox News are often seen as left-leaning and right-leaning counterpoints in the world of cable news, respectively, Jaramillo argues there is more that makes them alike than different.

She argues that in their coverage of the war the two channels relied on a pre-packaged idea of how the war would play out and an unshakable belief in the rightness of the U.S. cause. In other words, they rarely deviated from the official storyline coming out of the White House.

Borrowing an idea from the world of cinema, she writes how the news coverage was “high concept” — a rather inelegant phrase used to mean that the news was simplified and packaged as a commodity from the earliest stages.

To illustrate  “high concept,”  she writes that movie industry executives know consumers would understand shorthand, such as “Days of Thunder” or “Top Gun” to know the genre, story arc,  kind of actors and the rough budget of the film.   Likewise, when a TV station rolls out a new set of graphics, redeploys star journalists and announces it will suspend ad breaks for a few days, we know what sort of experience we are in for: ambitious but ultimately reductive coverage of a single subject — and when there isn’t enough news from the front lines, conjecture is used to fill the airtime.

Jaramillo, who teaches televison and film at Boston University, touches on two of the most familiar debates regarding media coverage of the war — the way in which news outlets were happy to uncritically relay the administration’s dubious claims about weapons of mass destruction and the conflicting duties of journalists who were embedded with troops.

But more useful is Jamarillo’s account of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign — the official idea being the more spectacular the explosions, the more cowed the Iraqi military would be. But Jamarillo argues convincingly that the real reason for this approach was its propaganda value back home. CNN and Fox News’s talking heads spent hours talking up the spectacle of what viewers were going to see, almost like a movie trailer.

Neither channel expended much time reporting on what this bombardment felt like to the Iraqis on the ground and ever present was the Pentagon-approved assumption that this war was an especially humane one using the world’s most precise weapons. Jamarillo notes both channels downplayed reports of collateral damage, those places where missiles had strayed away from the military and industrial targets and killed or injured civilians — and when such footage appeared on Al Jareeza, it was dismissed on CNN and Fox News as mere propaganda.

Jamarillo’s tight focus on the first five days of the war effort (March 19 to 24, 2003) gives a solid scholarly base to her arguments but it also makes it seem to be a historic piece rather than a vibrant part of an ongoing debate.

One of the enduring visual images of the war is President George W. Bush standing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003. Very soon, of course, it became clear that the mission had not been accomplished.  As the insurgencies took hold, the coherent narrative that CNN and Fox News had used to market their news coverage began to disintegrate, Jaramillo argues. There was  little consensus about who was winning the war in Iraq and how long it would go on.

But the later chapters of the book lose focus somewhat when she tries to explain how news outlets have adapted their frames of reference to keep the story going.  There is little  to disagree with in her concluding comments. She writes: “In 2003, we saw a concerted effort by many different parties to sell a concept backed up by passionate rhetoric. Years later, all media are struggling to give voice to complexity and outrage.”