I’ve embedded myself in the million-dollar press center at General Tommy Franks’s Central Command (centcom) forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar.
Camp As Sayliyah, where the press center is safely stowed, is far enough from the center of Doha (a sort of San Diego on the Persian Gulf) that you get a clear and eerie sense of what Qatar was like before it became oil-rich and development-happy two generations ago.
It’s pure moonscape. Not a tree, not a bush. Hardly a structure. Just a horizon of flat limestone. And then you come upon the U.S. base—really just a ring of wire and then a no-man’s-land behind which there is the base.
The lack of cover in every direction must provide a high security level, but, in addition, the base is fortified with all other maximum-paranoia, extra-protection measures. It’s hunkered down. Not just defended, but defensive. There’s none of the busyness, or evident esprit de corps, you’d expect of a war facility in wartime—especially one where everyone is theoretically certain of victory.
Getting in and getting out, for the hundreds of journalists here, involves prisonlike procedures: a full-body X-ray (if you’re radiation-averse, they offer an actual strip search), and then a shuttle bus that weaves around an obstacle course of concrete pylons before you get to the much-heralded Coalition Media Center.
It’s an aluminum warehouse, about a quarter of a football field long, with three oversize garage doors. Inside there are hastily thrown-up white Sheetrock walls on white linoleum soaked in fluorescent light. It’s over-air-conditioned and windowless. It’s grim. So it’s entirely unclear what the reports of the cost of the center were meant to convey: Gross opulence and luxury? Or the overindulgence of the media? Or Madison Avenue slickness? Or the usual military-contracting cost overruns? (To go with the $400 ashtray, a million-dollar press center.)
The center’s big price tag has fed expectations of a carnival atmosphere, or, even, victory party. So there’s something of a shock when you’re greeted by this low-level, functional environment—no joie de guerre here.
The other shock is that this warehouse is it. If you’re in Doha, this is where the second Gulf War will take place. These are your confines. You’re shut in. War is dehumanizing and over-air-conditioned. War is hermetic. Sixteen or twenty hours a day inside isn’t unusual. Waiting for information.
It takes about 48 hours to understand that information is probably more freely available at any other place in the world than it is here. At the end of the 48 hours you realize that you know significantly less than when you arrived, and that you’re losing more sense of the larger picture by the hour. Eventually you’ll know nothing.
This may be the plan, of course. There are two kinds of forward reporters: the official embeds with units on the ground in Iraq who know only the details of the action they see, and those posted to military press centers in Kuwait or Qatar (as close to Tommy Franks, the presumptive conqueror of Baghdad, as it’s possible to get), who know only what they’re told.
Which happens to be nothing much at all. It is not just that the general and his staff and the military-communications people seem secretive or averse to supplying information, it’s that they don’t seem to know what information is. The press office wouldn’t even provide the Newsweek correspondent with the first name of one of the generals. And everywhere the admonition is, We don’t discuss military operations—which obviously prompts the question, “Then why are we here?” Two days into the war, without even a press briefing yet, the Australian-military spokesmen (identifiable by a slightly different camouflage pattern from that of the Americans) took the Australian press outside of the press center for their own briefing (in which they basically said they couldn’t brief because the Americans weren’t briefing yet), and everybody else rushed to the perimeter, like internment-camp prisoners, standing on cement slabs and peering through the barbed wire at an actual information exchange.
The unfolding story is, of course, the way in which the coalition forces (the military, on message, always says “coalition,” so the reporters end up repeating it, even though, duh, it’s no coalition) are being thwarted, or divided, or interfered with. We know this, not by facts particularly, but by deduction: Nobody’s celebrating. Of course, CENTCOM can and does override this story by demonstrating forward movement, insisting on certain victory, and implacably avoiding the nuances of thwarted expectations. And we accept this—returning to our desks. Victory is certain. But equivocalness hangs in the air—we’re waiting for it to tip over. If there is not going to be a fabulous, stirring, vindicating march (Gulf I), then the next best or, even, better result (especially for the foreign press) is the moment when the tide turns—we’d pounce.
But right now it remains a depressing muddle.
By day six, rumors were everywhere that ABC, here with George Stephanopoulos, the most prominent face at the Media Center, and an original complement of 20 or so staffers (down from more than 50), was pulling out.
Without information, hierarchy—always a media subtext—has become a more pronounced theme here.
“There is speculation that the Abu Dhabi TV correspondent, dubbed Mr. Liar by the rest of the press corps, will end up as a Saturday Night Live character.”
Partly this is the American 800-pound-gorilla issue. American media dominates, but a significant part of the press corps is composed of non-Americans. Mostly they are relegated to the open-seating front room—the Bill Mauldin Mezzanine, in a bit of Army charm. There are three long rows of tables, with cheek-by-jowl chairs, and an electrical and Internet bar running the length of the table. Every chair is fiercely and bitterly protected. There is a level below this, too: the people without desk space, who fight for the unassigned chairs under the bank of monitors.
It has an OTB feeling.
Or even more: It’s like a trade show. The brain-dead-ness, the irritation, the dry-mouth (every day there’s a new wall of boxes of bottled water), the envy of the lucky people with a bigger booth than yours.
Behind the forward room are the three rows of private rooms, which you get with a combination of influence (because you’re a big broadcaster, or because you’re an old-timer—there are reporters who have been here more than a month waiting for the war to start—or because you’re a squeaky wheel) and a thousand dollars for a telephone line. There is, too, against the far wall (Coalition Way—because that’s where the British and Australian offices are), the Al-Jazeera office—which has some clearly special, if unacknowledged, status.
And then there’s the biggest fight, which is for one of the assigned seats in the first three rows of the briefing room (this is the room where $200,000 was spent to build the stage). Here, too, the Americans from the big media organizations (and Al-Jazeera) have prevailed (although the reporter from Popular Mechanics kept insisting he had 10 million readers and was given a chair). The importance of the front rows is not only that you’re more likely to get called on for a question (“I will get my ass fired if I don’t get myself on TV asking something,” confides the Canadian reporter next to me) but that you don’t have to get here two hours early to claim a seat for yourself (the air-conditioning is at its coldest in the briefing room).
This is the job: not to cover war but to cover the news conference about the war. This is likely the Schwarzkopf effect. During Gulf I, he made the daily briefing good television—you had a star. It’s hard not to think that the Schwarzkopf effect was somehow involved with going all-out on the staging here. Indeed, it was the television professionals (NBC, in some further in-bedness with the military, is producing the briefings) who suggested that the planned array of seven plasma screens made the set look a bit like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (there are four now).
But, in fact, this time around, the opposite effect is at work. Either Tommy Franks has little interest in all this and doesn’t want to designate anyone else as general of the limelight (so he uses a changing cast of briefers), or, as likely, Rumsfeld has decided to claim the star spot and has issued orders down the line that there should be no briefer cult of personality—indeed, most of the news coming out of CENTCOM has already been released by the Pentagon.
Still, nobody is deterred. The briefing is everything in the CENTCOM media day.
Every daily reporter will file something from the news conference. And the television reporters will do their setups (at the two-minute warning, the network correspondents stand up in the front of the room on little risers and give their intros, pretending they have exclusive, even intimate, entrée).
And there emerges a certain kind of modest theater. At almost every briefing, the correspondent from Abu Dhabi TV, dubbed Mr. Liar by much of the rest of the press corps, manages to ask the “lie question”: “Are you practicing a strategy of lies and deception, or have you just been trapped by the Iraqi Army?” There is speculation that he will end up as a Saturday Night Live character.
And there is a kind of competition to ask the WMD question: Have any weapons of mass destruction turned up yet?
But nobody expects real news or real answers (“I would never ask a question that I actually wanted an answer to,” harrumphs one reporter).
The real reason for being here (besides that it’s on television everywhere) is for the mood of it, the temperature. The issue is whether the briefers, from the taciturn Franks to the earnest General Abizaid to the affable General Renuart, will ever crack, even a bit. (There’s also General Brooks, who gives the completely meaningless video presentations, and then remains ramrod-straight on the stage.)
We’re waiting for testiness. Impatience. Exasperation with the media. (General Renuart, in answer to a question, perhaps stated actual Pentagon policy when he said, “The media is reality.”) Or any sign of going off the dogged message: This is a wide coalition … Victory is certain … It’s not about one man … We will find the WMDs …
In some weird way, in our weird war in the weird media bunker, the briefers become a kind of stand-in for the troops themselves. They take sporadic fire here, meet minor hostilities, encounter pockets of resistance, but remain unflappable (even the spokesmen in the field, interviewed in the immediate aftermath of battle, are unflappable). Possibly everyone is media-trained.
And this could be the story. Fortitude, training, amazing technology, and a million-dollar briefing center let you keep your eye, unwaveringly, on the mission. And it’s on to the battle of Baghdad and an efficient mop-up.
But the sense here—and no small reason why hundreds of reporters are hanging around—is that it’s too controlled, too planned, too full of confidence for something not to give.