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Caught on Tape

Filmmaker Kent Bye Says the Media is Partially Responsible for the Iraq War--and He Has the Footage to Prove it

Sam Holden
Sam Holden
Sam Holden
Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/16/2004

Kent Bye and Jennifer Gouvea squat in an empty room with scuffed floorboards and badly painted lavender walls, once their overcrowded living room. They're taking a breather, but there's much more to be done. Everything they own has been packed in boxes either stacked inside their Reservoir Hill apartment or loaded into a moving van parked outside. They're getting married in July, but their relationship has already crossed the commitment threshold of cramming their combined worldly possessions into a rented truck for a move to another state.

The overflow from the truck is piled up in Gouvea's Honda Civic, including their precious Power Mac G5 computer, cushioned by their bedspread in the trunk. On the passenger seat sit directions to a log cabin outside Bangor, Maine. It's there that Bye, 27, and Gouvea, 28, will unpack and reconnect their Mac and resume logging, culling, and transferring the contents of 600 video tapes onto the computer's hard drive, snatching and reading news transcripts off online news-search service LexisNexis, and watching endless digitally stored news reports. They're doing all this in order to finish their documentary film, which they hope will emerge as a significant voice in the ongoing critique of the network news coverage of the Bush administration's path to the Iraq War. But right now, they'll be happy just to finish it.

Already, so much has happened to arrive at this point where they teeter between failure and success. The risks and rewards are intertwined and indistinguishable, ranging from their mental health to their reputations, their careers to their relationship. At the same time, they are enthralled with a project that has changed their lives and they hope will change the lives of a lot more people. The potential payoff, they say, is the chance to strike back at the media, which for most Americans is a shapeless, powerful, and sometimes intimate force in their lives.

"I was trying to figure out whether there was another way to make a difference which didn't amount to me going to another anti-war rally or getting six of my friends to call a congressman," Bye says. As far as he's concerned, "the bigger issue is that these images were being put out by the television news media, and that is kind of the approximation for reality."

Given the working title The Echo Chamber, Bye and Gouvea's film looks to indict the mainstream media coverage that led up to the Iraq War--specifically how, in Bye's view, the U.S. media aided the Bush administration in whipping the American people into accepting that war with Iraq was inevitable.

 

Kent Bye makes for an unusual upstart filmmaker/political activist. Two years ago, he was swaddled in casual-Friday khakis and white dress shirts as an up-and-coming electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp., a defense contractor. But in the past few years, Bye has transformed from a guy who decorated his apartment wall with a poster of the fighter jets he worked on to becoming a digital documentary revolutionary who replaced the jets with a poster of Uncle Sam mainlining oil from a gas-pump nozzle.

Until his film is finished, Bye might as well be just another angry crank. But he is a crank armed with the kind of analytical obsessiveness that doesn't come standard in most journalists, who often lack the patience to sift through the tedious details. After all, who has the time to watch all the TV network news reporting leading up to the Iraq War?

Bye was a three-time high-school science fair winner, who went on to hone his analytical skills at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and moved to Baltimore right after graduation in 1998 to start a lucrative job at Northrop Grumman.

In other words, Bye is a geek. Gouvea makes a point of calling him this, or some variation thereof, as an endearment. His grin at her teasing overwhelms his face, flashing too much exuberance for self-conscious hipness. Despite the shock of hair that flops in his eyes and the tufts of hipster beard on his chin, it's easy to discern the engineer inside the thrift-store shirt.

When he first joined Northrop Grumman, Bye was not only a techno-geek, but a bit of a film geek, too. And one night in 1998, he went to the Charles Theatre and saw the documentary Hands on a Hard Body, a low-budget human-interest piece that followed a handful people through a contest to win a pickup truck by being the last one with their hand on it. The simple production values and workmanlike shooting proved a revelation: A good story can overcome technical limitations.

Bye spent more and more of his off time thinking about film. He volunteered to work on some local low-budget productions. He volunteered at MicroCineFest, the Johns Hopkins Film Festival, and the Maryland Film Festival. He did freelance reporting for indie-film bible Film Threat. Bye eventually began work on his own film, a documentary about a summer camp for people with mental disabilities where he had volunteered while in college. He shot and edited the footage himself, working late nights in his bedroom studio. In 2000, after about a year's work, he had a bona fide 50-minute film called Handicamp.

To give the film the best chance to play at film festivals and maybe even find a distributor, Bye took a yearlong leave of absence from Northrop Grumman in 2001 to promote it. But Handicamp attracted little attention.

"It wasn't a topic that grabbed a lot of people," he says. "Even though people who saw it really loved it, the [film festival] program people weren't programming it. It was very discouraging." But Handicamp did make an important impression on one viewer.

Jen Gouvea met Bye in February 2002 at a fund raiser for Kids on the Hill, a Reservoir Hill-based nonprofit that offers art training for neighborhood kids, where University of Maryland, Baltimore County film-school graduate Gouvea worked as an artist/social worker. By this time, Bye had embarked on a documentary about a former Baltimore anarchist/artist, now living in Philadelphia, who goes by the name tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, or tENT for short, and had come to the event to network and perhaps volunteer for Wide Angle, a Kids on the Hill-affiliated video program that helps inner-city kids learn documentary filmmaking.

"He didn't have that hipster bullshit persona thing," Gouvea remembers. "He didn't look that cool. He looked like a nerd." Still, she thought the gawky guy in white sneakers and a checkered shirt had a pretty good look. The two talked, and a couple of months later Bye dropped off a tape of Handicamp as promised.

"I watched it with my dad," Gouvea says. "And I said, 'This is the guy I'm going to marry.' And my dad is like, 'Oh, right.' And I said, 'No, I'm serious. I know I can tell.'"

She says she could tell a lot about its director by watching the film. The story was sweet, with "themes about love and community and questioning human relationships." Soon, they were inseparable.

 

Bye and Gouvea had more in common than an interest in film. They both felt increasingly vested in the political events that had been unfolding since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bye says his political consciousness had been growing since street protests against a meeting of the International Monetary Fund effectively shut down the city of Seattle in 2000. And he was finding it increasingly difficult to rationalize the part he played in the military-industrial complex while working on airplane radar systems. At work, he'd post articles outside his cubicle that he knew would instigate debate--say, a report comparing the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed during the Intifada, which got him yelled at by a co-worker.

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Bye says he instinctively began taping news coverage, although he did nothing with the footage. He says he was immediately suspicious of George W. Bush's explanation for the attacks: "'They hate us because of our freedom'--I was like, 'Does that make sense at all?'"

Growing up, Bye says he had little interest in politics. During the first Gulf War in 1991, 14-year-old Bye collected all the trading cards highlighting the United States' military might because he dug the gear. Little did he know that, more than 10 years later, he'd be using those cards to make Playing War, a short film arguing that American kids are doomed to worship mass violence. Bye entered the short in the CAmm Slamm 24-hour filmmaking contest at the Creative Alliance in 2002 only to find that the audience was more interested in irreverent films like contest-winner The Vibranator, in which a rogue sex toy chases women around Baltimore.

For Gouvea, who recalls eating dinner with her dad, now a member of the Green Party, while he yelled at then-President Ronald Reagan's image on the TV screen, the issues brewing in the Middle East and in Washington suddenly seemed more urgent than her work for Kids on the Hill.

"I'd been spending the last five years working in the inner city with no money," she says. "And to see where these resources were going and to be against this on so many levels, it was very hard emotionally."

As the drumbeat grew louder for a war in Iraq, Bye and Gouvea say they both felt like flotsam battered around in a political turbine and they were determined to find a place to make a stand. "We talked about the war constantly. We were both really upset about it," she says. "I felt really powerless."

Then on Aug. 22, 2002, Bye saw Scott Ritter--a former weapons inspector in Iraq, a former Marine, and a Republican critical of the Bush administration's policy on Iraq--speak in Baltimore at Stoney Run Friends Meeting House. Ritter's speech provided Bye's clarion call.

"This is my starting point," he says. "When I saw Scott Ritter, he was pretty unequivocal in saying, 'The Bush administration is going to war, and this is how they're going to do it. They're going to use weapons of mass destruction,' but [Ritter] said [the Iraqis] don't have weapons of mass destruction."

And so, Bye says, he thought, "OK, I better start recording C-Span, 'cause there were a lot of lies coming out. And then the sniper case came out, and the media wasn't covering this at all. And that's when I thought, Let's focus on the media."

Bye dropped his documentary about tENT, putting 30 hours of raw footage aside to go on a taping spree. He taped Iraq-related coverage on C-Span, Sept. 11 anniversary speeches. (He also collected quotes from random citizens as the country moved closer to war for a City Paper photo feature shot by contributing photographer Uli Loskot ["A Rumor of War," Feb. 19, www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=3259].) In November 2002, as the likelihood of war with Iraq loomed ever larger, he started regimented taping and archiving of the big three network newscasts. Bye fed three VCR tape decks around the clock, collecting every news report produced by ABC, NBC, and CBS. To make sure he got everything, he'd go straight home from work and opted to stay in rather than go out and miss a news report. "It was like living with a dog," Gouvea says.

After much consideration, at Gouvea's urging, he quit his job with Northrup Grumman in August 2003 to work on the film. "I just pushed him off the edge," she says. "He already wanted to jump."

 

Weeks before the move to Maine, Bye holes up in his studio/bedroom in front of his computer, the heart of his project. He has been reviewing pre-war newscasts he caught on tape, classifying them, and cross-referencing them with transcripts found on LexisNexis, news reports from foreign sources, congressional records, Bush administration records, and university studies. He has developed dizzyingly detailed graphs outlining opinion polls' peaks and valleys and network story-counts during the build-up to war. Bye's forthcoming retreat to Maine is not only a chance to finish the project, but also a chance to prepare for a month-long round of interviews when he comes back to Baltimore in July.

"I do feel like I'm in my own little cave doing this project." he says. "It's hard sometimes to transition to the real world and carry on a normal healthy relationship with my girlfriend. It's hard to get myself to get out of the work mode."

The odds are still long against an outsider filmmaker breaking into the exclusive world of national politics and stealing the conversation from the anointed opinion-makers. Bye's case is tougher still since he's going after the media itself. The media has its ombudsmen, watchdog organizations, and professional critics, but being a more or less self-regulated institution assures its tenure as a powerbroker no matter what complaints arise against it.

But Bye has a novel approach. He's planning to reflect the media's own words right back at them. Normally the evolution of electronic media coverage is too gradual and unwieldy for observation. That is until someone comes along and condenses hundreds of hours of news feeds that unwind to reveal the major broadcast news organizations as partners with the Bush administration--as unpremeditated as it may have been.

Asked for a demonstration of how his system works, Bye pinpoints the crucial turning point as the United States headed for war. He pecks at the computer keyboard and brings us back to Nov. 8, 2002, when the U.N. Security Council voted to send inspectors back to Iraq to look for Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

At that time, the United States was looking to the United Nations for what diplomats were calling "automaticity," a resolution that would provide immediate grounds for war if Saddam failed to comply with the inspectors and disclose all of his suspected weapons. The other 14 Security Council members just wanted to send in the inspectors and see what happened.

The media smelled war. Each of the three major networks had already bannered their news broadcasts with slogans like "Target Iraq" (NBC), "Road to War?" (ABC), and "Showdown With Saddam" (CBS). In the Nov. 8 resolution, the United Nations declared Iraq in material breach for not cooperating with previous inspectors and demanded that Saddam's regime declare all their weapons. The Security Council gave U.N. inspectors 45 days to go back to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction. But there was no automatic trigger for war.

"Any false statement or omission in the declaration will be considered a further material breach of Iraq's obligations, and will be reported to the Council for assessment," the resolution read in part.

A U.N. press release offered that the "United States noted that, while primary responsibility rested with the Council for the disarmament of Iraq, nothing in the resolution constrained any Member State from acting to defend itself against the threat posed by that country, or to enforce United Nations resolutions protecting world peace and security."

Bye clicks his mouse.

First up on his computer monitor was NBC White House corespondent Campbell Brown, who announced on a Nov. 8 newscast, "Today's vote is a major victory for the president. Beginning with the support of only Great Britain, he eventually convinced the Security Council's most skeptical members to give him a blank check for military action without another resolution." On one of ABC's Nov. 8 newscasts, Peter Jennings reported that the Security Council voted unanimously that Iraq should get rid of its weapons or face serious consequences: "Here's the question on this significant day: Is the Bush administration one step closer to attacking Iraq as a result." And Dan Rather said, "CBS's John Roberts reports this now starts a countdown towards a showdown with Saddam Hussein."

"Blank check," "one step closer," "a countdown towards a showdown with Saddam"--as far as Bye is concerned, the media didn't bother to ponder the meaning behind the U.N. resolution and rushed to announce that the United States was on the brink of war. There was no mention in the newscasts that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped the new round of inspections would create the opportunity for a peaceful settlement.

"There were enough things out there," Bye says. "Enough little nuggets, red flags, that were available to the print media and the television media that they would have found if only they dug a little bit deeper, talked to the blue-collar workers, not just the senior officials--the president and Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell--if they asked other people who were skeptical."

No weapons of mass destruction were found by the U.N. inspectors, and the United States never went back to the Security Council for a war resolution. On Jan. 28, 2003, in his State of the Union address, President Bush uttered the now-famous statement, "America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."

Meanwhile, as recounted rapid-fire on Bye's computer screen, members of media got themselves embedded with the troops. The nightly news was filled with file footage of tanks, missiles, and U.S. troops zigzagging through urban-warfare drills.

Bye says such coverage "allowed the news media . . . to get people used to the idea that, Oh yeah, we're going to war, up to the point where it was inevitable. We saw it over and over, day after day--the military exercises, all the tanks storming through the dunes, and urban-warfare exercises, so we knew war was going to happen. It was just a question of when."

To demonstrate how subtly persuasive all this hardware footage and talk of war could be, Bye clicks back to November 2002, when the media were pondering the odds that Saddam would use chemical weapons.

In the fall of 2002, reporters were padding around in clumsy moon suits to experience chemical-weapon maneuvers with the soldiers, introducing viewers vicariously into a situation where, as NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski put it in a Nov. 6 report, "the gas mask stands between you and an agonizing death." Clad in chemical gear and bumbling along with soldiers, Miklaszewski described a drill this way: "The instructor, looking like a grim reaper, carefully dispenses Sarin, so lethal a single drop could kill every one of these soldiers within three minutes." Bye knows he has the advantage of hindsight, but he can't help but grin at the next scene. Miklaszewski ends the report by taking a shower after a day of nerve-gas drills, saying, "Under these tightly controlled conditions all went well, but if Saddam Hussein unleashes chemical weapons, it's certain not every American soldier will walk away."

The fear that Saddam was preparing for chemical warfare hinged on the reporting of the New York Times' Judith Miller, who wrote articles about, among other things, Iraq ordering a large supply of Atropine injectors, which could be used as on-the-spot antidote for nerve gas. All three major networks ran with the story, and each reporter offered his or her own interpretation of this potential threat. On Nov. 12, 2002, CBS correspondent Dave Martin ended his report, "Now president Bush the younger is planning to go all the way to Baghdad, and Saddam is threatening in no uncertain terms that this time he will fire chemical weapons."

Bye, whose only journalistic training stems from working for his college newspaper, suddenly sounds like a daily-paper ombudsman, asking rhetorically about attribution and sources for such speculation reported as fact. They are the kind of questions asked recently when it was revealed that Miller used the now much-maligned Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress as one of her major sources. Her reporting, often based on anonymous sources, fed speculation that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and planned to use chemical warfare to defend against invasion. On May 26, 2004, the Times went so far as to print a lengthy piece acknowledging that some of its reporting leading up to the war--much of it Miller's--was "not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." Bye notes the coincidence that the government gave the media access to the drills during the onslaught of reports about chemical attacks.

Even after watching hours and hours of footage with a skeptical eye, Bye admits, "Sometimes I'm taken aback as to how compelling the images are, how really scary some of the images of mass destruction were, how neat to see the military equipment flashing through the desert. It's stuff that is entertaining, dramatically."

 

During his taping frenzy, Bye straddled the line between diligence and obsession. "Given he didn't have a premise for the film--which is fine, that's how the creative thing works--I'm watching, you know, and I think [he's] going a little bit insane," Gouvea says. When she found herself ducking stares while in line at the Sam's Club with a shopping cart piled high with VHS tapes she was buying for her boyfriend, she wondered a little about her own judgment.

At one point Bye's mother, Ilze Bye, got so concerned that she and her husband flew out from Indianapolis to visit.

"I thought he was having some kind of breakdown," Ilze Bye says during a telephone interview. "'Oh my, Kent, this is a little too much intensity for me.'"

Mom's worries were allayed by Gouvea's ability to keep Bye in line. She sometimes interrupts him while he's graphing one of his charts by saying, "Kent, be human." Gouvea also helped him draft up a budget and production plan.

Bye's transformation didn't escape the notice of his father, Bruce, either.

"I guess what surprised me a little bit is the level of his passion," Bruce Bye says. "That he pretty much walked away from a pretty significant income to pursue what he thought was right."

Kent Bye's political fervor would seem like an obvious irritation to his father, a market researcher for Eli Lilly who was instrumental in getting Beech Grove, Ind., to elect its first Republican mayor in 41 years. But Bruce Bye won't take the stereotypical counterpoint to his son's newfound leftism.

"From the standpoint of the way Kent has looked at the issue, and I have looked at the issue, it is kind of like what happens when you have a jury trial in a courtroom," Bruce Bye says. "You have the jurors hear exactly the same information, and yet when they go into the room to make the decision, you find out that there are all kinds of interpretations what is the truth and what is wrong."

Bruce Bye served in Vietnam and is proud of it. But 13 years after the '91 Gulf War supposedly exorcised the United States of the failures of the Vietnam War, he talks about how the conflict in Iraq still is at the mercy of Washington power plays, public opinion, and the vagaries of military action.

"I can see the reason why we were there in South Vietnam when I was there," he says. "I think what we realized was there was no way, given how the war was being conducted, that we were going to be able to win." He pauses. "Politics. You look at why people are putting their lives on the line for something that was doomed for failure."

For her part, Bye's mother had months to digest her son's career detour while taking in the news from Iraq. An immigrant from Latvia and a Bush backer, she says that it's better to make peace than to argue. She believes her son just may be on to something.

"I'm starting to think that maybe my son wasn't as off-track that I thought he was," she says. "There is a lot of media now that is questioning--even Congress is questioning what knowledge there actually was."

 

More than a year after the first cruise missiles slammed into Baghdad, the steady stream of dead and wounded has many Americans--and American media--questioning the nature of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the war, as well as the president's eagerness to go into Iraq soon after Sept. 11. Books like Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, which details the White House's buildup to war, are adding new dimensions to the public debate.

While members of the media seem to be giving the administration's reasons for going to war their full scrutiny now, Bye sees the media just as culpable for the war as any Bush administration official, and he's not alone. As Michael Massing, a contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review, asked his journalistic colleagues in a February article, "Where were you all? . . . The contrast between the press's feistiness since the end of the war and its meekness before it highlights one of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism: its pack mentality."

The TV news coverage leading up the Iraq War not only distracted viewers from the hard questions, but also marked the point where reality TV infiltrated network journalism, says communications expert Neil Kleinman. Kleinman, who taught a class on propaganda at the University of Baltimore until 2001 when he became dean of the College of Media and Communication for the School for the Arts in Philadelphia, says the embedded reporters so much a part of covering the run-up to the war and the early combat not only provided a Pentagon-sanctioned view of events but also became characters in a plot that was easy to follow along at home.

"This worked on the same level we watch reality television," Kleinman says. "It has nothing to do whether or not this was a right strategic policy or whether the analysis makes sense. It was simply a good story that we wanted to continue, and we liked the characters."

Meanwhile, Kleinman says, the Bush administration was following the principles of propaganda in using emotional issues like Sept. 11 and the looming threat of weapons of mass destruction to build public support for the Iraq invasion. Given journalists' primal desire to be not only be first with a story but also to be perceived as right, which often means sticking to consensus opinion, American TV viewers were flooded with more news than they could handle, almost all of it pointing in the same direction: war. Even those who didn't buy the Bush administration's call to arms found themselves overwhelmed.

"It's easy to be cynical, but it's hard to be skeptical," Kleinman says. "Skepticism is the ability to compare and contrast a lot of information."

Even if someone wanted to examine the kind of nightly coverage that led up to the war, it's not the kind of thing that can be easily reconstructed. TV news coverage tends to dissipate as soon as the story's over. A study released in March 2004 by Susan Moeller's Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, which criticized the media for accepting the Bush administration's case for weapons of mass destruction, noted that merely reading the TV transcripts wouldn't be useful without the accompanying footage. Unless, of course, someone taped it, for months. Someone like Kent Bye.

Of course, Bye's guerrilla documentary probably would not have gotten this far a mere decade ago. Anyone can tape the news, but thanks to a relatively inexpensive home filmmaking kit, especially a computer with a terrabite (1,000 gigabites) of memory to hold up to 85 hours of footage and a Mini DV camera, Bye can edit the tapes down into usable footage. And in an age when documentaries ranging from Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me can entertain and spark public debate, Bye may be in the vanguard of a new trend beyond the box office, where average citizens with a little know-how, some technology, and the determination can sift through the previously one-way news feed from the giant media outlets and answer back.

 

If nothing else, the making of The Echo Chamber has given Bye and Gouvea a sense of participation in a political system that they feel has little room for their views.

"It's a place where I can have hope," Gouvea says. "Where I was burned out and kind of spaced out, I feel like I can get back in. We can do this. We can make a difference."

On their last day in Baltimore, Bye and Gouvea are already road-worn, even though they haven't even left yet. There is an impromptu video diary session, where they sit one last time in their living room. There is a pizza run along with a trip to a friend's house to get walkie-talkies so they can talk to each other on their two-vehicle convoy up I-95 to Maine. Their lives, the movie, are now indistinguishable, thrown together in the truck.

Perhaps knowing a pivotal moment when she sees one, Gouvea turns to Bye, climbing out of the junk pile in the back of the truck after loading the last box. Such a moment could use some kind of comment. Perhaps sensing this, Gouvea laughs.

"You got some pizza sauce on your face," she says. She licks her thumb and wipes the red smudge off his upper lip, and they get into their car and truck and drive off.

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