Thursday, February 23, 2006

That famous SNL Gulf War Skit

For someone who's blog name is "Newscat" I sure don't talk much about current events or pop culture anymore. But I spend a lot of time on other people's news/politics blogs but most especially NYC professor Jay Rosen's Press Think. One of the things I really like about Jay is that after putting up his hugely literate essays, he then gets down into the trenches and argues with the trolls and press haters. Those people who will just reflexively call you a liberal-new-york-ivy-tower-professor-who-doesn't-know-anything-about-real-life. He actually tries to argue with them, and while sometimes I wonder why he bothers, I admit its interesting to watch.

But I was going on in a post about something I've been reminded of lately which is a certain famous Saturday Night Live Skit which mocked how the press behaved during the first Gulf War. The "joke" was the press would ask questions like:

"Which method of hiding SCUD missiles is working best for the Iraqis" and "knowing what you know, where would you say our forces are most vulnerable to attack, and how could the Iraqis best exploit those weaknesses?" all of which implied such a high level of stupidity on the press and inspired actual anger at their behavior. Of course its a joke, right?

Well here's the thing. There's a great word I learned in graduate school; simulacrum. It means a simulation of something that seems real enough to replace the original. Like The Daily Show is a simulacrum of the the news because it looks and acts just like the real news. In fact it might even replace the real news broadcasts in people's mind because the imitation is so perfect. But its not actually *perfect* though is it? It may look and sound like the real news, but everyone knows The Daily Show isn't really written by actual reporters.

It odd how one skit that's 14 years old can be so memorable. There's numerous references to it from many different people using it to make different kinds of points. I think over time, the skit itself has replaced any real collective memory of how the actual press behaved during the Gulf War with this simulation of how they behaved. Even in people like former Senator Alan Simpson, when they think about the press behavior during the Gulf War I bet their memory doesn't reference any actual incident of stupid question but probably goes back to this very skit as just a kind of amalgamation of press behavior during the Gulf War. I particularly like this reference:

[Lorne] Michaels remembered that at the start of the Persian Gulf war, the show did a sketch about reporters harassing Gen. Colin L. Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with ludicrously specific questions about where the United States would attack. "In Powell's book he said that when he saw that sketch, he knew the country was behind him," Mr. Michaels said.

There is also this quote from a cMay 20, 1991 Newsweek "Perspectives" piece.

"It was not a trivial component. It gave us an indication that things weren't being handled too badly." A senior White House official, on how the administration KNEW the public was on its side on gulf-war press restrictions after "Saturday Night Live" began lampooning the war media.

But here's the problem...the simulation is not a perfect reflection of the original. Did some members of the press (especially the TV journalists) ask asinine questions during briefings? I'm sure you can pull some transcripts and seem some boneheaded ones. Were they ever as bad as this skit implied? Hardly. But has the "badness" of the press behavior been permanently cemented as reflected in the SNL skit. I think in many ways it has.

When I was an undergraduate I took a class in war reporting (this would have been around 1997-98). One of the things I was genuinely shocked to learn was how poorly reported the first Gulf War was. In many ways it was seen by lay people (like my 16 year old self) as "over reported." Like there was too much information about it. But in hindsight it was actually one of the most censored wars ever (which is probably why it was so popular). I think this snippet from a 1998 radio interview with Warren Strobel, then a White House Correspondent for the Washington Times rather nicely sums up the situation.

PORTER: Did you see the Saturday Night Live skit they did of the military briefing, the press conference, where some of the questions were things like "Can you tell us exactly where the military is going to strike?", or another question I remember was, "What would be the most damaging piece of information that Saddam Hussein could find out about the US military?"

STROBEL: And will you tell it to us now?

PORTER: Yeah, and tell it to us now, yeah.

STROBEL: It was one of those comic things that really, I mean it struck to the heart of the matter, because that was the view that the American people had of the media, that we were just, you know, getting in the way of the war effort, being irresponsible and silly. And that's also I think what the military wanted to project. So again there was a lot of gut-wrenching, soul-searching kind of stuff after the war took place. And everybody for a year or so sort of thought, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be sort of the motif for media-military relations for the coming CNN age." But it turned out to be very, what's the word, misleading.

In many ways its not unlike the Spanish American War where all the unpleasantness is kept hidden until the historians find it decades later by which the public perception has long moved on.

What interests me about this particular skit was how the comedy of it has replaced the reality in many people's imaginations about the press. As Stephen Colbert might say, it feels true so that's the same thing as being true, isn't it? It felt like the media people were stupid and dunderheaded and wanted to reveal secret battle plans so that must be how they actually behaved. Though this attitude may start from a simple joke, it remains with the viewer and is subtly influencing other thoughts about press behavior down the road.

The real thing is the best propaganda come from comedy, not direct appeal. Comedy is the backdoor to one's subconscious and a comedic point can actually be accepted far more directly than anyone trying to make a logical one.


Ron Brynaert said...

Great post.

Here's a link to a transcript of that SNL sketch.

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