Mary Katharine Ham

     It’s been less than 24 hours, and the entire press corps is sputtering mad because President Bush’s teleconference with soldiers in Iraq was—gasp!—staged. By “staged” they mean that there was a deputy assistant defense secretary on hand to give the guys and gals in uniform a pep talk before the shoot.

Allison Barber prepped them on the questions they’d be asked and the order in which they would be asked them. Heck, I wouldn’t have put it past the administration to even set up the chairs in those neat little rows. I can’t believe the Bushies expect us to believe that stuff happens by accident.

     This “staged” event took up about a hour of the American people’s time, and would have taken up just a few stories worth of ink had the press not freaked out about the evil chair-arranging, question-ordering regime of George W. Bush. It’s helpful in understanding how ridiculous a story this is to imagine the media telling a story in this style about a different staged event. Here’s my interpretation of today’s AP story, inspired by this picture.

CRAWFORD, TX—It was billed as a vigil by a grieving mother who simply wanted to have a conversation with President Bush about her deceased son, but Cindy Sheehan’s vigil was choreographed to match the anti-war movement’s goal of pulling out of the war in Iraq.

     “This is an important opportunity,” said Willow Rainbow Smith, a spokesman for the Crawford Peace House, coaching Cindy Sheehan. “You have the power and the moral authority to get our message out to all of America.”

     Smith said Sheehan should address three topics: why George Bush and his band of neo-cons and their neo-con agenda killed her son; why American soldiers are killing the freedom-fighters in Iraq every day; and some solutions for how to push all those pesky Jews out of the Middle East.

     While Smith spoke, news crews prepared to beam a shot of the grieving mother to every news station in America. The whispery clicks of a thousand shutter flashes sent her image to papers across the nation, kneeling solemnly by a cross to commemorate her fallen son, flanked by Al Sharpton.

    “All right, everyone, let’s get the stylist out of the shot and make sure we can’t see the catering tables under the party tent.”  

     A brief rehearsal ensued.

     “OK, let’s walk through this. Cindy, you will kneel before the Casey cross. Al, you’re where?”

 “I’ll be right here, behind Sister Sheehan. I will bow my head and pray for the day our boys don’t have to stay in that country of disarray!”

     “That’s right, and other mourners?”

     “We’re here to frame the shot.”

     “Correct, and I will be stage right, tenderly touching Cindy’s hair. Got it? All right, photographers, let’s crop, crop, crop and make this picture into a misrepresentation!”

     Unfortunately, the press chose to report Sheehan’s months-long staged event as the simple plea of a grieving mother and the spontaneous support she inspired, leaving out the fact that numerous anti-American, socialist, anti-Israel, and anarchist organizations had been building up Camp Casey and fueling up the cross-country bus since Cindy Sheehan burst onto the scene.

Surely, if the press feels a need to out yesterday’s Pentagon-arranged teleconference as —gasp!—arranged by the Pentagon, then it had an obligation to out the elaborate machinations and diverse causes behind an anti-war movement that billed itself as spontaneous and innocuously grass-rootsy. 

     The fact is that some staging and coordination is a part of every major media event; the press just decides how to report on it depending on who’s doing the staging. Judging from the stories I’ve read about yesterday’s teleconference, Barber did nothing but organize the teleconference, telling each soldier when he or she would speak and where to hand the microphone. And that’s hardly a news story considering that the Pentagon was in charge of, you know, organizing the call. There is no evidence given that Barber was coaching the soldiers as to their answers (Sgt. Ron Long, who was in on the call, refutes that notion, here). If Barber’s behavior in this instance is somehow subversive, then my friend, who is an event-planner by trade, will be very sad to learn that she is an enemy of freedom. 

     But enough about the staging and machinations of political entities, from whom we expect such things. Let’s examine a few staged events from those who presume to be so shocked by them in others.

     Mark Finkelstein, of NewsBusters, spotted one this morning on the Today show, when intrepid correspondent Michelle Kosinski was shown—Live from New Hampshire!—paddling a canoe down a suburban street immersed in flood waters that appeared to be better fit for carp than cars. But a few seconds into her crisis commentary, a couple of men plodded past her boat in the foreground of the shot, roughly ankle deep in water. They unwittingly revealed that Kosinski could have reported from the street in 3-inch heels and barely gone home in squishy shoes

     Michelle Malkin has a great list of recent instances when the mainstream media has been caught in the act of its own manipulative staging.

     Then there’s a whole other kind of manipulation, brought to you courtesy of Dan Rather (nah, Rathergate is too easy a target). I wonder, just wonder, if there was any staging going on in this 2003 interview between Dan Rather and Saddam Hussein. You think maybe Saddam Hussein and his minders were given a look-see at hard-hitting questions like these before the interview?

“Are you afraid of being killed or captured?”

“Do you or do you not agree in principle, with the attack?”

“Given this sober moment and the danger at hand, what are the chances this is the last time you and I will see each other?” 

     To find out who was really in control of this interview, all you have to do is look to Dan Rather’s note on how it was conducted:

Now a word about my interview with Saddam Hussein. The videotaping was done by Iraqi television crews, which has long been standard practice for Saddam, for one thing to prevent assassination attempts. The Iraqis returned to CBS News a tape that combined all three camera feeds into one. CBS News checked, and as far as we can determine, the content of the nearly three-hour interview is intact and was not censored by the Iraqis.

     Media coverage is always a tug-of-war over who controls the message. Staging is just one tactic. It’s telling when you notice to whom the press is willing to relinquish much of that control.

     For George W. Bush and troops in Iraq? Nothing but utter spontaneity of microphone position will do.  

     For communists and anarchists who would like to bring about the collapse of the economic and political systems of America, and by the way, want peace in Iraq? Frame the message and the press will eagerly take the picture.

     For murderous dictators? You know what, just take over the filming and the editing, and get back to us when you’re done.

     Readers and watchers notice these things and don’t appreciate it. The press is gonna need a paddle for the creek it’s up, because this one’s real.

Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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