Patriot Games

With a distant war, a vague enemy and no access, local media are left waving the flag

As it crawls from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the one faint good thing the media may escape with is an abandonment, however briefly, of the dumbed-down celebrity-consciousness of news. In our humble hamlet, our outpost on the Mississippi, this glimmer of a trend is personified by 59-year-old Harry Levins, the Post-Dispatch's senior writer, who, since 1991, has written 2,500 editions of the celebrity-riddled "People in the News" section of the paper. Since Sept. 11, that preoccupation is no more.

On the day three commercial airliners crashed into the symbols of global capitalism and the military-industrial complex, Levins came back from vacation to be the rewrite man for the lead story. He went from Angelina Jolie and Pee-wee Herman on Aug. 27 to Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld on Sept. 11. Now that it's bombs away on Afghanistan, the switch looks to be for keeps.

It wasn't until a week ago that Levins fully realized the worldview whiplash he had experienced. "I was at home at my computer. My home page is Netscape, and there's a picture of Jennifer Lopez. It says, 'J. Lo gets married,' and I say, 'Wow.' And then I thought, 'I don't give a shit,'" says Levins, laughing like a man who has just won the Missouri Lottery Pick 3. "I don't have to care anymore."

That the daily paper of record's sole "senior" writer was typing copy about the comings and goings of the Anne Heches of the world is a sad comment on what passes for journalism in this burg and elsewhere. But at least moving a reporter who pounds out a weekly "Military Matters" column, buried in Saturday's paper, to the news desk makes tactical sense. There's not much local media can do in the face of this horrific but nebulous new conflict, because it's clear that Ernie Pyle is not the prototype for the today's war correspondent. With nothing but guerilla fighting and few defined fronts, the idea of sending a local reporter anywhere seems silly.

For one, no matter how gung-ho a newshound might be, he or she wouldn't be up for a commando raid with the special forces. Pity the fool news director or editor who'd send some scoop-obsessed inquisitor to the wrong side of the Khyber Pass. Years ago, the mujahedeen took it easy on Dan Rather because they needed the publicity; this is a different deal. U.S. troops will be on foreign turf, and they'll be lucky to save their own asses, let alone some tag-along journalista.

So don't expect even a bird's-eye view of the hunt for bin Laden from local or national reporters, because when it comes to media access, chances are, this campaign will make the prepackaged, blow-dried Persian Gulf War look like a reporter's dream assignment. At least in the Persian Gulf War there was a geographic target -- the recapture of Kuwait -- and a frontline stocked with conventional troops. Still, the media was kept miles away. With this new pursuit, the only targets are moving, and there's little that's conventional about the combatants. And if another explosion or bomb goes off stateside, there may be news closer to home to cover.

The main danger early on for local media appears to be enrollment in the George M. Cohan School of Journalism, the wrapping of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" coverage in an American flag. This is not to suggest that all coverage must give "equal time to present Osama bin Laden's side," which, as KTVI (Channel 2) news director Brad Remington points out, would be ridiculous. No, strict objectivity is unachievable and unnecessary. But thorough explanation of the context of the situation, how the Taliban is the mutant child of CIA policy in Afghanistan, how bin Laden was once our compadre, how this all came to be -- that is something the local media has done poorly if at all.

Ellen Soeteber, Post-Dispatch editor in chief, says her paper waited until the smoke cleared to start providing much analysis because right after the Oklahoma City bombing, false assumptions were made by the media. She also notes that the full-page flag that was printed in the Post-Dispatch was not part of the news hole and therefore was the publisher's call. "Initially I didn't want to do it," says Soeteber. "Then, as I kept hearing both from readers and Post-Dispatch employees, people had such heartfelt requests on this, after a while I came around. By the time the publisher asked me on it, I had come around on my own by talking to rank-and-file employees and readers. They wanted to hang a flag in their window, and they couldn't find one anywhere else. There were some people here who disagreed with me, and that's fine. We had discussions."

One baffling promotional spot with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" as the musical backdrop was aired repeatedly by KSDK (Channel 5). The song has long been used as an anti-war anthem, questioning the use of violence with lyrics such as "How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?" The problem with the spot is that instead of focusing on needless death and suffering by showing the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or destitute Afghanis headed for the border, the only visual is the American flag -- the same flag that's been attached to news logos such as "America Rising" and "America Strikes Back" or waved as part of a jingoistic call to arms.

Another local manifestation of the patriotic surge appeared at Sinclair Broadcasting's KDNL (Channel 30), when it was one of the first six stations to drop Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher commented that the U.S.'s use of cruise missiles to bomb distant lands was cowardly. The controversy over KDNL's dropping the show seemed insignificant when the station decided to end all of its newscasts as of Oct. 12. If a station would rather show reruns of some variation of Star Trek instead of a local newscast, why be surprised that it doesn't want to air an open discussion of the day's events? Where's the money in that?

When the World Trade Center collapsed, the P-D's fashion editor, Lisa Jones Townsel, was in New York City, and she was drafted for the news side. Karen Branch-Brioso of the Washington bureau was sent to the scene by way of Amtrak. KMOV (Channel 4) sent John Mills, and KTVI sent Paul Schankman. Mills and cameraman Jon Davis drove through the night in a minivan, taking turns sleeping in the back. Editing three or four stories a day on a laptop computer, they filed about 25 pieces during the week they were based in Jersey City, N.J. Most involved some local angle, such as the 60 Missouri firefighters who made the trip. Before the scene was better controlled, Schankman tagged along with some Cahokia, Ill., firefighters when they first went to Ground Zero.

Yet virtually all of the local angles that matter can be covered without leaving town. And until bin Laden's stormtroopers bring the war to the heartland by toppling the Arch into the river or sending suicide bombers on the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour (that would mean war), there are some advantages to living in the provinces. St. Louis is about the 20th-largest market in America; it is not New York City or the nation's capital. It's not a target, at least not yet.

So despite all the warnings about airport security, anthrax, smallpox and kamikaze pilots, this war looks to be a distant fight waged for complicated reasons by a vague enemy. None of that lends itself to easy or cheap media coverage. One small side benefit is the de-emphasis of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The P-D's Soeteber says the minitrend may last a bit, or so she hopes.

"You're going to see a more serious approach to news for a long time to come," predicts the P-D editor. "Society would have to be very fancy-free again for news to become as frivolous as a lot of it did on national television this summer. We put the [U.S. Rep. Gary] Condit story on Page One only once, the day he went on national TV to talk about it. We never put it on Page One any other time. Look at all the attention the damn shark attacks got from Florida. It was a slow summer."

So slow news days are over for now, replaced by the 9-11 aftermath, the new war and a window on the real world. But don't think Hollywood has been replaced for long. Even Levins thinks the fade is temporary. He admits to one drawback of not writing the "People in the News" feature: "I miss being read."