NEW YORK -- On the cable networks there is plenty of talk about Iraq, from speculation about quagmire to the political ramifications for 2004. But there is little enthusiasm for reporting on American soldiers themselves or paying brief tribute to the lost, beyond a constant updating of the death figures. Like some kind of grim jayvee team, U.S. soldiers who have fallen in the "postwar" don't count for as much as those who had the good sense to die when everyone was watching. The only soldier any broadcast outlet seems eager to discuss is Jessica Lynch, whose story no one can agree on.
After President Bush declared the "end of major combat operations" on May 1, the cable networks effortlessly returned to their prewar programming staples -- pop culture and true crime. At the time, this made sense; few expected the casualties of the postwar to exceed the official war. But the bloody postwar is now several months old and you still wouldn't know it from watching the primetime cable news shows, saturated with coverage of Scott Peterson and Kobe Bryant, and having just received a bonanza with the Michael Jackson case. That the networks are motivated by ratings and ratings alone doesn't qualify as a stunning revelation, but, like a chronically cheating spouse, the reality doesn't get any easier to accept over time.
Unfortunately for fans of Fox News, the network has not done itself proud in this respect. While Brit Hume and Tony Snow provide solid political analysis in the early evening, Fox's rent is paid by its primetime talk shows -- "The O 'Reilly Factor," "Hannity and Colmes," and "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" -- and these programs just can't be bothered with something as trite as a fallen U.S. soldier. Considering the way Fox trumpeted itself after September 11 as the network whose anchors were unafraid to wear American flags in their lapels, its devotion to primetime trash makes all that patriotic bluster pretty hollow.
The stench from Fox's garbage tends to be worse than that of its competitors, if only because the network is so invested in the idea that it actually gives a hoot about American troops. Worse, considering Fox's political sympathies, a viewer might reasonably suspect that the tabloid fare is not only good for ratings, but for crowding out discussion of what the network considers unpleasant political realities.
Military families must be enraged when night after night, Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson lead the coverage on the "network America trusts for fair and balanced news," while their own sons barely warrant a mention or an onscreen photo. Instead, they are treated to Sean Hannity's nightly buffoonery, as he talks over any guest with a remotely different perspective from his own. Is it so much to ask that a few minutes' worth of Hannity's verbal flatulence be devoted to recognizing the life of a fallen soldier?
When Hannity and Alan Colmes are through, don't look for any relief from Greta Van Susteren. As likable as she is, her program has become almost completely dominated by the Peterson case. Soon she'll be on full-time Wacko Jacko duty. As for Bill O'Reilly, he is usually too busy plugging Who's Looking Out For You? to look out for American soldiers.
Even during the height of the Iraq war, Fox wore its self-aggrandizement on its sleeve. While visiting with some U.S. soldiers, correspondent Oliver North asked the soldiers in camp what their favorite network was. They obligingly shouted, "Fox News!" Six months later, North's visit seems high-minded by comparison to the current programming. Are the talk show hosts and executives at Fox ever chastened when another American son falls at the hands of barbarians and all they can find time for is endless discussion about hair samples in the Peterson case? Or does the emptiness of their product reflect an equally vacant conscience?
With the Peterson and Bryant trials just starting and the arrival of the Jackson case -- a Trial of the Century that may eclipse O.J. -- Fox will have a surplus of garbage to pick through for the foreseeable future. The network 's windbag hosts will blather on, while half a world away the brave and anonymous men they pretend to honor fall, like the proverbial tree in the woods, silently.