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Remembrance of a War Past 

An unfond look back at Freedom Toast, TV jingoes, and a pro-war bully called Tony Hall

Wednesday, Apr 16 2003
Eventually, it will be over. America's troops will return from Baghdad. The country's acrimonious spring will warm to summer. Peacenik parents will celebrate barbecues with their warmongering spawn, and all will be normal again.

We'll have a moment to take a breath, reflect, and cast our minds back to the second Gulf War. Myself, I'll see blurry images, isolated and surreal ...

There was "Freedom Toast," the breakfast confection formerly known as French.

There were the iris bouquets, the bottles of French wine, and the hundreds of well-wishing phone calls that arrived at the San Francisco French Consulate.

I'll recall the friend who phoned from Mexico City to ask whether I, as a U.S. journalist, had been repressed or censored: Foreigners were that astonished by U.S. media jingoism.

I'll remember that TV was embarrassing in its jingoism, but a few newspapers distinguished themselves, including the Bay Area's two major dailies -- the Chronicle and the Mercury News -- which, in fact, produced voluminous, sometimes heroic, generally worthy coverage of the war.

I'll remember an unforgettable scene at a Board of Supervisors hearing toward war's end, when Supervisor Tony Hall browbeat a woman who'd been arrested as an anti-war protester, causing her to cry.

But mostly, as I reflect upon the national outpouring of hypocrisy and cruelty and mawkish self-importance that accompanied the war, I'll realize what a peculiar country we live in -- schizophrenic, delusional, and grandiose in the extreme.

Are we really the best people to be ruling the world?

I thought it best to start my journey through this season of surrealism with the consul general of Spain in San Francisco. Spain, after all, produced Gaudí, Dali, Miró, Domínguez, and Picasso. At the Spanish consul general's residence, some boob threw a rock through a window just as the war was about to break out.

"There was no note or anything. He just broke the glass. If someone was doing it as a form of protest, it was a pretty dumb protest," explains Consul General Camilo Barcia. "Not long ago, there was another chap who was on a bike. He was at the front door, doing something you usually should be doing in a private restroom. I don't think he was protesting or anything. There's just no way to read any meaning in the rock-throwing, either."

Still, it's not the Spanish-, but the French-speakers who've felt the brunt of recent American craziness.

There was Bud Selig telling all baseball fans, including the French Canadians who attend Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos games, that they had to sing "God Bless America" rather than "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. To make matters worse, Jays fans had to endure Celine Dion's recorded rendition of "GBA" during the April 1 season opener in Toronto.

There were "Freedom Fries." In March, you'll recall, the moronic U.S. House of Representatives banned the F-word from cafeteria menus.

Around the country, French consulates and embassies received scornful mail. But in San Francisco, French diplomats got bouquets.

"We took irises to the French -- fleur de lis, as they call them," says 55-year-old state worker Tom Kelly of Berkeley. Kelly and two dozen of his friends were among those who sent flowers, French wine, and other gifts to the French Consulate here. The consulate received 800 phone calls, 90 percent sympathetic. (French diplomats living outside San Francisco, meanwhile, received mostly hate mail.)

Kelly's group also visited consulates of the other coalition of the unwilling countries. "Couldn't find cornflowers, the German national flower, so we also took irises to them. And we took sunflowers to the Russians," he says.

Befitting their status as speakers of the language of diplomacy, the French received Kelly's anti-war group coolly, yet cordially. The Germans, not a very easygoing group to begin with, were cooler still. But the Russians behaved like, well, Russians. They invited the group inside. They wanted to have their picture taken with the anti-war folks. "They expressed their appreciation for our visit, and how terribly saddened [they were] by the outcome of the situation in Iraq, by the very fact that this whole thing resulted in a war," Kelly recalls.

After I received the call two weeks ago from my friend Tonio, a Mexico City pharmacist who worried I might be suffering under U.S. government censorship, I did what everybody's been doing these days: I watched TV. Specifically, I turned to TV Azteca and its Scud Stud, Javier Alatorre, reporting from Jordan.

Like some other non-U.S. news broadcasts, TV Azteca gave the appearance, when compared with kowtowing U.S. coverage, of being run by a crack team of hardened journalists with an eye for hard-to-find yet groundbreaking news. TV Azteca coverage of the U.S. attacks on Al Jazeera and the shelling of the Palestine Hotel, where the international press corps was staying, was far more thorough than the CNN or MSNBC broadcasts my basic cable package gives me. The day's other TV Azteca lead stories -- the U.S. bombing of residential Baghdad neighborhoods and critics' claims that the U.S. Army was holding up Red Cross relief to parched, starving Iraqis -- received scant airplay stateside.

As for print journalism, my scan of 20 U.S. daily newspapers showed the Chronicle was one of very few papers that carried the Al Jazeera and Palestine Hotel attacks on the front page. Which brings me to Robert Collier and Tim Goodman, and the good, journeymanlike job the Bay Area's two big newspapers have been doing covering the Iraq war. The Chron didn't just place Collier's Palestine Hotel attack story prominently -- the paper gave him space for a detailed account that used strong terms to question the U.S. military's version of events.

Goodman, meanwhile, has used his post as the Chron's television critic to provide breakout analysis of whether TV reportage has better served the public, or the U.S. military. He has given a nuanced, entertaining, critical, and informative view of the way the war has been covered on television. "With paid military advisers dominating maps and thrilling anchors with their battle analysis, there's apparently no room for dissent," Goodman wrote in one dispatch from TV land. "Until that issue is addressed, more people will seek out British or Canadian news options."

According to Stanford University media researcher John McManus, the same criticism might be leveled at U.S. newspapers, although to a lesser extent. And, he says, Bay Area papers are less jingoistic than they might have been.

"If you were visiting this planet from another one, you would look at this war and say, "There is one country, much more powerful than the others, and it's attacking a country much smaller than it; it's doing so without the support of the rest of the world.' But you don't get the impression from reading U.S. newspapers how isolated we are, and how much ill will we've generated," McManus says.

McManus runs a Stanford research project called Grade the News, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. His most recent bit of inquiry has involved gathering a pile of Chronicles, Mercs, and Contra Costa Timeses from the first week of the war, then reading them as if they were historical texts.

"There were certain criteria I had in mind as to whether the coverage was, I guess, jingoistic," McManus says. Did the papers cover, or downplay, military setbacks? Did they use overt nationalistic imagery, such as the flag; did they use cheerleading terms such as "liberation"? Did they report on civilian deaths? Did they examine domestic protests as dissent, or disruption? Given the very modest standard McManus set, the Merc and the Chron performed quite well; the CoCo Times less so.

"I don't think it's reasonable for U.S. journalists to cover this from an absolutely neutral standpoint. The nature of war precludes that. I was looking for whether journalists seem to be giving us an honest account, rather than shading things to please military commanders," he says. "My general impression was that these papers worked pretty hard to keep people informed and did a reasonably credible job. All things considered, the Merc did the best job, trailed by the Chronicle. Each paper engaged in a serious effort to help people make sense of this war."

The Chronicle lagged behind the Merc in terms of intelligently covering the war protests. For many Chron writers, the anti-war marches were mainly a traffic problem. The Merc, whose readers mostly stick to suburban freeways, seemed to feel free to analyze demonstrations on their own terms, McManus says.

"When you look at the domestic protest coverage, there wasn't much about cities outside the Bay Area, though there were very big marches in other places around the country such as Chicago, New York, and other places," he says, adding that while Chron protest coverage was profuse, it was also shallow.

"The reporting about the San Francisco protests was framed as, "These people are pretty crazy.' Rob Morse wrote, "They think globally, but ruin your day locally.' There seemed to be no sense of exploring these people's thinking. They were viewed in the Chron more as hooligans."

The Chronicle wasn't the only place where the anti-war protests were addressed with banal simple-mindedness. Looking back on spring 2003, I'll vividly remember putative mayoral candidate Tony Hall angrily pacing the supervisors' chambers last week during a Finance Committee hearing called to analyze the protests' fiscal effect on the city.

During anti-war protests police arrested 2,300 people, at a cost of $900,000 per day, the city said. Half of the cost was police overtime. According to Hall, the protesters should somehow be made to pay, retroactively, the cost of policing themselves.

Protesters testifying at last week's hearing suggested that police racked up at least some of their overtime by making thousands of false arrests.

During the March 21 protest, for instance, police herded 600 protesters, who had been walking down the sidewalk, into a makeshift police-barricade corral, according to people who testified at the hearing (and a protester I spoke with earlier). Police arrested the protesters en masse, charging them with refusing to obey an order of the police and blocking traffic. Many of the 2,300 people arrested still have court dates scheduled for the end of April.

Lacking any other meaningful public forum, the arrestees flocked to the Finance Committee hearing to say they'd been arrested falsely. San Francisco's Police Commission and its Office of Citizen Complaints, they understood, make a policy of avoiding confrontation with the police.

The Finance Committee scene seemed like democracy gone mad. Hall stalked the chamber in a sour, I've-got-no-time-for-this mood. He snapped at one protester, the one who broke down crying.

Though he'd like to portray himself as such, Hall is no fiscal watchdog on a rampage: He's an apparent fan of Gulf War II with what looks like a distaste for dissent. In late March, according to news reports, he was the only elected official to attend a pro-war demonstration at which speakers said things like, "If you don't support the troops, you are anti-American, you are subversives, you are terrorists." Hall, for his part, sang "America the Beautiful" and thanked everybody for being there.

A democratically elected public official who seems to misunderstand the American tradition of pluralism, Hall brings to mind the sort of politician who'd have punished the peaceful street protesters who brought down Slobodan Milosevic. Although there have been exceptions in public life, Hall has had plenty of company during our jingoistic wartime spring.

Is this really the sort of national character we should make the world succumb to?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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