OpEd Columns

TV War Coverage Fits Right In (AScribe Newswire 4/3/03)

It was a guilty rush of emotion. The opening day of the war, that is.
Waiting for Shock-and-Awe to hit my 27" Sony screen was like sitting on a lawn chair on the Fourth of July, staring at the dark, starry sky. Was that the fireworks grand finale? No? What did he say? I'll know it when I see it?
These embedded journalists sure were giddy, weren't they? Pentagon-prepped and primed with the game plan, they knew everything about the mission of their chaperones. The manufacturer of the plane, weight of the bomb, circumference of the missiles. Well-trained, wide-eyed reporters regurgitated strategy, statistics, and model numbers like sales managers at a Radio Shack convention.
And just in case we forgot that human beings were involved in this conflict, the journalists chatted with American soldiers beneath their chemical suits, then got them to wave to the camera from their cockpit before scorching off the USS Lincoln. Thumbs up. Go get 'em Hawk! The troops, up-close and personal, like Olympic athletes.
So why should I worry about this televised war?
My boob tube experience tells me the main character always wins. Our guys will be back next fall for the new primetime season, won't they? That's what a lifetime with American television as your companion teaches you. Murders, mysteries, investigate, speculate. The spectacle of this war coverage has fit in well with our televised society.
Strobing images of helmet-headed reporters zooming through the sand atop army tanks resemble Playstation video games. Which, no doubt, is how the media-blitzed youth of our country escape from this wall-to-wall war coverage. Pull out the joystick and play a few rounds of Battlezone before going to bed.
Meanwhile, bombs detonate inside Baghdad. The journalist files his report. 326 Tomahawk Cruise missiles fired from aircraft carriers. A GBU-37, precision guided 4500-pound bomb falls from the air. Simultaneously within the city limits, a shivering six-year old boy, eyes filled with tears, struggles to see the pictures of his favorite bedtime book. His mother teaches him to read under candlelight.
I didn't see that report, but I'm sure it happened.
I didn't see it because no one embedded a U.S. journalist with any of the innocent families in Baghad, huddled under their wooden bed frames.
Burning metal showers down from an otherwise serene desert sky. A father covers the ringing ears of his precious three-year old daughter. The cheap thrill of opening night TV coverage has worn off for me.
Imagine Scott Pelley reporting from under a table with his videophone, four young Iraqi children crying in the background as they hold each other in their bedroom. Imagine cutting that footage with Dan Rather in the studio, or a pixelated journalist watching the mighty F-16s soar off the deck.
Imagine that.
Imagine retired General/Colonel/Admiral Johnson talking about surgical strikes on designated targets of military significance, cross cut with child psychologists explaining the traumatic effects of a 2000-pound payload detonating a city block from a toddler as she desperately clutches her soothing security blanket.
No, there just isn't much interest in live dissection of innocent people's psyche. It's much easier to digest the fancy flying 3-D graphic design of Iraq land maps with arrows stretching toward Baghdad.
Easy but sad. Like the faces of frightened prisoners of war.
From Los Angeles to Miami, local news stations and their newschoppers daily trip over each other trying to broadcast the most sensational footage of every live homicide, suicide, and hostage situation. But when a foreign network has footage of American POWs being interviewed during the war, our networks stutter to figure out whether it's appropriate to air this videotape.
Maybe it wasn't violent enough for our primetime lineups.
ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX produce top rated television dramas and reality shows about mass murderers, serial rapists, and repeat pedophiles, complete with graphic depictions of death. In terms of violence the war coverage fits right in with a lineup of CSI, Special Victims Unit and the latest Dateline investigation.
Perhaps that's where America's reconstruction of Iraq should begin. With the rehabilitation of Iraqi television. Chances are we're probably producing new reality TV shows in Baghdad at this moment.
Gee, won't they be happy to see their new fall primetime lineup.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell