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My Big Fat Question

While the war was raging elsewhere, I was stuck at CENTCOM, where I was supposed to be lobbing softball questions at generals. Naturally, I did the opposite. (Cue hate mail from Rush Limbaugh fans.)

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General Knowledge: Brooks, the official spokesperson and face of CENTCOM.  

The sandstorms blowing through Iraq left a kind of mustard cloud over the desert flats of Qatar, creating a fair approximation of the end of the earth. Serendipitously, “Midnight at the Oasis” was playing on the car radio as I came up to the camp gate just before 5 a.m.—my tenth day in Doha. Then the cell was ringing with a nervous producer from CNN in New York (where it was still prime time) trying to figure out where I was—only 200 yards away from the makeshift studio space in the CENTCOM media center. There were rumors that one of the two bomb-sniffing dogs had died—CENTCOM would neither confirm nor deny that this was the first casualty in Doha—meaning the process of getting through the security no-man’s-land would be even longer than usual, and, I tried to explain to the CNN person, I might not make it by airtime.

We’d reached the point where reporters were interviewing other reporters in the most media-scrutinized war ever fought. But even among the overexposed, I was—because of the irritable question I’d asked at a daily briefing and over international television—on the verge of a special status: becoming the wiseass of the war.

A television reporter from Istanbul was hotly pursuing me for an interview because I was, apparently, famous in Turkey (a title for a possible memoir). I was very popular, it seems, in France, Canada, and Italy too.

The AP, Reuters, the Times, and The Nation were calling. What’s more, I’d had to switch from the Doha Marriott to the Doha Ritz-Carlton for a faster Internet connection to download 3,000 hate e-mails.

I’d lobbed my big question because it just seemed too obvious not to ask. Everybody here was having the same perfectly Groundhog Day experience: You woke up only to repeat the day before, and no matter what you did or said or thought, you were helpless to effect a change in the next day. So every day, everybody asked the same questions about Basra and the supply lines and the whereabouts of the WMDs and Saddam, and got the same answers. They were war correspondents after all (or trying to be). The purest form of reporting: Armies were moved, weapons deployed, kill counts tabulated. Nothing postmodern about a war reporter. Events needed to be confirmed and recorded. But behind this stripped-down façade, invisible to the public, was a secret, very pleasant theater of the absurd.

While the home front saw the unspooling of this war pageant—the green night vision, the small-arms fire, the precision missiles, the Tolstoyan reports of the embeds—radically dissociated from any larger context (the U.S. media had sealed itself off from the almost diametrically opposite view of the war offered by the media in the rest of the world), in Doha, we were in a discrete, amiable, backstage world.

On television, away from our remote Doha reality, General Brooks looked fabulous. One the small screen, he had a quiet authority and a reassuring unflappability.

We were in on the joke.

We were the high-school kids who got it. The embedded reporters, on the other hand, were the rah-rah jocks.

“General, is the war going well, or is the war going extremely well?” was the question we all knew we were here to ask.

“In a world where people are being blown up, it is difficult to explain that life at the Ritz is a kind of death, too,” said one of the Aussie reporters, contemplating our predicament. “Death by buffet.”

Here we were in the world’s most boring city, on the world’s least enviable piece of earth, in this over-air-conditioned warehouse (a virtual sensory-deprivation chamber), with only microwavable mini-pizzas to eat—all just to wait around for a 45-minute news conference, ably engineered and precisely scripted to tell you as little as possible. Death by banality. General Vincent Brooks, who became the official spokesperson and the face of CENTCOM, was surely the ultimate assistant principal.

Everybody here understood. A roll of the eye. A curl of the lip. A silent scream.

Still, no matter how jaded these reporters were, when the lights went on, they knew their roles. They had producers and an audience. The show must go on. If everybody here seemed privately to accept that the process of reporting war was a crock, publicly they accepted the war as a coherent event that they had some mastery over—they had inside sources, they had the general’s ear. They were war reporters.

But I wasn’t a war reporter. I didn’t have to observe wartime propriety—or cool. I was free to ask publicly (on international television, at that) the question everyone was asking of each other: “I mean no disrespect . . . but what is the value proposition? . . .Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million-dollar press center?”

It was the question to sour the dinner party. It was also, because I used the words value proposition, a condescending and annoying question—a provocation.

Still, I meant it literally: Other than the pretense of a news conference—the news conference as backdrop and dateline—what did we get for having come all this way? What information could we get here that we could not have gotten in Washington or New York, what access to what essential person was being proffered? And why was everything so bloodless?

My question was met with a sudden, disruptive, even slightly anarchic round of applause—not dissimilar to the whoops when a kid drops a tray in the school cafeteria—and I knew I was in a little trouble.

The question, it turned out, spoke powerfully to people who think this whole thing (not just the news conference but, in some sense, the entire war) is phony, a setup, a fabrication, in which just about everything is in service to unseen purposes and agendas (hence my popularity in Turkey, France, Canada, Italy, and at The Nation magazine, as well as among the reporters in the Doha press pool). But it seemed to speak even more dramatically to people who think the whole thing is real, pure, linear, uncomplicated, elemental (lots of, if not all, Americans). For the former, I’d addressed something like the existential issue of our own purposelessness, but for the latter, I seem to have, heretically, raised the very issue of meaning itself.

And seriously compounding matters, there was the rude applause.

It must have seemed like the media was clapping for its own smartness, or smart-ass-ness. By breaking the proscenium like this, by acknowledging the uselessness of these ritualized proceedings, and therefore the artifice, we media people suddenly seemed like a thing apart—apart from the war, and from our audience (and hence from our country too—at least we American media people).

Now, this is a complicated point, because although everybody in the room represented the media (and would, in short order, be recirculating the noninformation and obvious disinformation that was given out), almost everybody in the room saw the media as occurring somewhere else—a confection being created by some unseen hand. Everybody here would step out of the briefing room and look up at the monitors above the makeshift newsroom tuned to the networks and news channels and watch the briefing be reported to the world and share the same reaction: What bullshit. (The packaging didn’t help . . . MSNBC: OUR HEARTS ARE WITH YOU.)


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