A delicate whitewash

Posted: May 02, 2005 12:00 AM

It's amazing what's possible if you close your eyes. An American TV news organization, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN or MSNBC, can close its eyes and accept videotape procured by Al-Jazeera in concert with terrorists who kill and maim American soldiers. A Hollywood director, such as Sydney Pollack, can close his eyes and pretend that terrorism is a plot device and the United Nations is an honest broker. Leaps of morality and boundaries of logic may be hurdled simply by turning a blind eye to facts.

To what end? Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Dorrance C. Smith connects the bloody dots between terrorists who assist Al-Jazeera in obtaining film footage that appears on the evening news in America. Among other pointed questions, he asks, "Do the U.S. networks know the terms of the relationship that Al-Jazeera has with the terrorists? Do they want to know?"

To date, the answer is a morally reprehensible no. But see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys aren't the best role models for journalists. Then again, maybe this very numbness to facts is in fact a culture-wide phenomenon that our news media merely reflect.

Take Sydney Pollack's new movie on international terrorism, "The Interpreter." Stepping back from even the outermost brink of reality, it switches the source of terrorism from a fictional Middle Eastern country to a fictional African country.

"We didn't want to encumber the film in politics in any way," Kevin Misher, the movie's producer, told The Wall Street Journal. Politics? How about encumbering the film with a little history, or maybe a few current events?

But fantasyland is where Hollywood lives these days. The world burns and Steven Spielberg remakes that sci-fi chestnut "The War of the Worlds." The producers of last summer's "The Manchurian Candidate" drop an Osama bin Laden-like character for being too "Tom Clancy." Meanwhile, Tom Clancy's "The Sum of All Fears" was also too "Tom Clancy," so the 2002 movie adaptation replaced the Islamic terror cell of the 1991 book with some generic old Nazis.

Then there's "The Great New Wonderful," the first movie set in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But, as newyorkmetro.com reports, "The completed script never mentions Bush, terrorists, Michael Moore, Fox News or even Sept. 11." Don't look for Afghanistan, the hunt for Osama bin Laden or the fall of the Taliban, either. Why not? As director Danny Leiner put it, "I just wasn't interested in anything didactic." Didactic? What is "didactic" about our cataclysmic national experience? A potentially significant industry revels in its own irrelevance.

Of course, it gets worse. The New York Daily News reports that actress Maggie Gyllenhaal credits "Wonderful" with dealing "with 9/11 in such a subtle, open way that I think it allows it to be more complicated than just, 'Oh, look at these poor New Yorkers and how hard it was for them.'" She continues: "I think America has done reprehensible things and is responsible in some way and so I think the delicacy ... allows that to sort of creep in." Creep is right. Good thing "delicacy" is never, ever "didactic" or "encumbered by politics."

Then there's "24." This is the Fox television series semi-notorious for having performed public penance -- in the form of a PSA featuring star and co-producer Keifer Sutherland -- because it dared to depict minimally identifiable Muslim characters carrying out terrorist activities against American civilians. Early on, the show even featured an exchange of "Allahu Akbar" between two terrorists -- mumbled, yes, but a first -- just as though the First Amendment applied to TV writers setting a story in the era of Islamic terrorism.

But following a no doubt friendly visit from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), lo and behold, the Fox show found what you might call "delicacy." Suddenly, the program's circumspectly Islamic gang included a full complement of white ex-military men, all with the inexplicable urge to shoot down Air Force One. In a recent episode, Marwan, the Muslim terror kingpin the show was originally "encumbered" with, videotaped a statement explaining why he was shooting a nuclear warhead at an American city. He did so standing before a flag covered in Arabic writing -- daring for these politically correct times -- but without once mentioning Allah, infidels, Islam or paradise. In other words, after all these years of Koranic communiques from assorted Islamic terror networks, Marwan's big moment fell p.c.-flat. This doesn't mean, though, that "24" isn't the topically bravest show around.

 Still, what were the producers afraid of? When networks, movies and television deny the facts of jihad terror, they whitewash killers. Why?