Coverage of the war seems to blur the lines between news and entertainment WAR IN THE GULF

February 01, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Remember the cigarette ad that asked, "Are you smoking more, but enjoying it less?"

When it comes to watching television coverage of the gulf war, the question is, "Are we watching more, but understanding it less?"

In fact, we are getting more TV news about the war than about any event since the Kennedy assassination in 1963. And plenty of us are watching. A Times-Mirror survey released yesterday showed 50 percent of Americans have been more or less continuously plugged into TV coverage since the war started Jan. 16. Pop culture has already added the term "CNN Syndrome" to our vocabulary to describe such viewing habits.

What are we learning from all this viewing? Are we getting the kind of information and analysis we think of as journalism? Or are we getting words and pictures from the real world packaged as prime-time entertainment?

So far, it's mainly been entertainment. The reality of war is being sliced and diced by news producers to fit the formulas of television entertainment.

Take, for example, the innumerable live scenes from Saudi Arabia and Israel where reporters in gas masks tell us that Scud missiles are on the way. What are we reacting to in such scenes? What keeps us riveted to the screen?

Often there was no real information being delivered. The reporter would say that he or she thought a missile was launched, because the sirens were being sounded.

Then, the sirens would stop, and the reporter would say that it was either a false alarm or that a Patriot missile had intercepted the Scud.

Hero-in-danger

The real appeal of such coverage is what screenwriters call hero-in-danger. We watched correspondents, like CNN's Richard Blystone, the way we watch a made-for-TV movie when the camera allows us to look through the assassin's gun sight as the hero walks toward the cross hairs.

In fact, the almost instantaneous nature of new satellite technology allowed just such varied points of view and heightened dramatic tension.

CNN would show correspondent Charles Jaco in Saudi Arabia, indicating that military officials reported Scuds launched at Israel. Cut to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for pictures of reporters putting on gas masks and preparing for the hit.

It is a variation of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's formula for suspense. Show the audience the assassin's bomb planted under the table. Then show the innocent child sitting down at the table.

The focus in such packaging becomes personality, not information. Our attention and emotions are directed toward the person in danger not any understanding of the larger reasons for the danger. That's one reason everybody suddenly wanted to know who all these CNN reporters -- Peter Arnett, John Holliman, Linda Scherzer, Jaco and Blystone -- were.

And some of the reporters consciously or unconsciously started playing the part of the protagonist or hero in a TV drama.

Blystone, for example, stood on a Tel Aviv rooftop Jan. 17 with reports of incoming missiles and shouted, "Come on, right this way," to a flash of light in the sky. The hero tempting fate, laughing at death.

Blystone's Prometheus was followed by CNN anchorman David nTC French, back in Atlanta, urgently telling his reporter, "You should put on the gas mask. Go to the shelter. Get off the roof." It was the Greek chorus warning the hero, expressing the anxiety and concern the audience members were feeling.

That is not journalism. That is entertainment, some of it is by design. And we should not kid ourselves. When we watch such coverage, we are not watching the war, but reporters covering a war and, perhaps, playing to the camera.

We are watching for a variety of reasons, including the same fascination that draws some to stock car races -- namely, that there might be a wreck.

Stirring the emotions

The greatest hero-in-danger story, of course, has been Arnett, the sole western reporter in Baghdad.

Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president in charge of news gathering, defended Arnett's presence in Iraq as Saddam Hussein's guest, noting that Arnett has been "our only window . . . that allows us to see, however darkly, into Baghdad."

Pictures shown last week of what Arnett said was a plant that bottled milk for babies have been much discussed. But CNN appears to have learned nothing from the discussion. After the Pentagon said the pictures were not a milk bottling plant but a chemical warfare facility, CNN started using the word "purported" when describing pictures out of Iraq.

Wednesday, CNN aired footage of bombed buildings, with dead children in the wreckage. You think viewers reacted to the word "purported" or images of crushed children?

Arnett and CNN could not tell us where the pictures were from or if they were even authentic.

Remember in May 1986, when the evening newscasts on NBC and ABC showed us what Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw said was a nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, viewed by a satellite camera?

The emotions that claim stirred were overwhelming.

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