Saturday, November 20, 2004

Saving “Saving Private Ryan”

Frank Rich takes a look at how the alleged moral values movement has become the new McCarthyism.

For anyone who doubts that we are entering a new era, let’s flash back just a few years. “Saving Private Ryan,” with its “CSI”-style disembowelments and expletives undeleted, was nationally broadcast by ABC on Veteran’s Day in both 2001 and 2002 without incident, and despite the protests of family-values groups. What has changed between then and now? A government with the zeal to control both information and culture has received what it calls a mandate. Media owners who once might have thought that complaints by the American Family Association about a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” would go nowhere are keenly aware that the administration wants to reward its base. Merely the threat that the F.C.C. might punish a TV station or a network is all that’s needed to push them onto the slippery slope of self-censorship before anyone in Washington even bothers to act. This is McCarthyism, “moral values” style.

What makes the “Ryan” case both chilling and a harbinger of what’s to come is that it isn’t about Janet Jackson and sex but about the presentation of war at a time when we are fighting one. That some of the companies whose stations refused to broadcast “Saving Private Ryan” also own major American newspapers in cities as various as Providence and Atlanta leaves you wondering what other kind of self-censorship will be practiced next. If these media outlets are afraid to show a graphic Hollywood treatment of a 60-year-old war starring the beloved Tom Hanks because the feds might fine them, toy with their licenses or deny them permission to expand their empires, might they defensively soften their news divisions’ efforts to present the graphic truth of an ongoing war? The pressure groups that are exercised by Bono and “Saving Private Ryan” are often the same ones who are campaigning to derail any news organization that’s not towing the administration line in lockstep with Fox.


As the crunch comes, we’ll learn whether media companies will continue to test such Iraq war stories against “reality-based” reportage, or whether they’ll kowtow to an emboldened administration, spurred on by its self-proclaimed mandate and its hard-right auxiliary groups, that can reward or punish them at will. For now the most dominant Falluja image has been that of the “Marlboro Man” ­ the Los Angeles Times photo of the brave American marine James Blake Miller, his face bloodied and soiled by combat, his expression resolute. It is, as Mr. Rumsfeld might say, a slice of truth. But other slices ­ like the airlifting of hundreds of American troops to Germany to be treated for the traumatic fallout of Falluja’s graphic violence ­ are, like “Saving Private Ryan” on Veteran’s Day, missing from too many Americans’ screens.

For those of us who remember the nightly news of the Vietnam war coming home to our living rooms, the tide of the war was turned not just by the Tet offensive. It happened when we saw the carnage of real war served with a helping of meatloaf. LBJ went to his grave believing that when he lost Walter Cronkite, the war was lost. The Bush administration is bound and determined not to let that happen with Iraq, and therefore anything that could make the folks back home see the truth of war is a threat, whether it’s an NBC news clip or a graphic film from Hollywood. The battle against the Reality-Based Community goes on.