19-inch Theater of War WAR IN THE GULF

MICHAEL HILL

February 03, 1991|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,Michael Hill is the television critic for The Evening Sun.

One of the most heated theaters of the Persian Gulf War measures 19 inches, diagonally. Or perhaps 26 inches, with stereo sound. It is, of course, your television set which, conventional wisdom tells us, is the locus of the heart and mind of America, perhaps of the world.

There are many combatants in this aspect of the war -- the Pentagon, the Iraqis, the Israelis, and the three networks themselves as well as CNN. Each is striving to have its particular version of events paramount in the viewers' minds.

The situation is analogous to the quadrennial political conventions. These used to be big stories, in print and on TV. But gradually the two parties realized that if they kept the reality of political in-fighting to a minimum, they could put on a big TV show for the public, getting their message across with a glossy slickness. The networks tried to fight that -- they were there looking for news, not slickness -- but couldn't win and eventually cut back their coverage.

Because of the way this war developed, in a clearly delineated area with a deadline announced far in advance, television was as in-place around the Gulf as it is around the arenas that house the conventions. And those that would control and massage the images that emerged were similarly poised for the confrontation.

The hand of the Pentagon is, of course, the most evident. The vision that the military wishes to project through the screen is filled with the so-called "smart" weapons that never miss their target and with gung-ho pilots who strut with a "Right Stuff" style confidence.

The jargon is cool and collected. Soldiers don't fight each other, they have contact with the enemy. Our planes don't drop bombs, they deliver ordnance. The generals all have an in-control aura as they deliver preliminary damage assessments, complete with generic comic-book-like drawings of buildings and runways blown up by bombs, a nod to TV's demand for visuals.

The Iraqis are obviously much less sophisticated in their image-doctoring abilities, but are clearly still engaged in such an activity. The fact that CNN was allowed to install its famous "four wire" satellite telephone link that kept it in contact with its correspondents during the first night's bombing was indicative of this.

The Iraqis most clumsy and cruel attempt at media manipulation, the use of captured pilots' reading anti-war statements, backfired immediately. The coercion involved was evident on their faces and in their voices and the project was quickly abandoned.

Now the Iraqis outlet to the world is through CNN's Peter Arnett but, again, their lack of sophistication has shown through in his reports. Think of how laughable those workers' jackets with "Baby Milk Factory" stitched on the back -- in English -- were to an audience of Americans used to resisting the complicated manipulations of Madison Avenue many times every night?

It was silly, but it was evidence of the importance of American television. Those jackets were made for our TV cameras as surely as the signs of protesting Chinese students that were written in English for a parade through downtown Beijing.

The Iraqis might be getting better at it. Mr. Arnett now has a full crew in Baghdad and can transmit pictures of the destruction of buildings that seemingly have no military importance. The interview with Saddam Hussein was chilling at the least. Reportedly, more Western journalists are on their way to the Iraqi capital.

The Israelis, of course, are veterans of such media wars. The images from their country of Scud missile destruction, of innocent civilians in gas masks, of babies crying in gas-proof cribs, have elicited nothing but genuine and deserved sympathy for their plight.

These images are teamed on TV with the ready access to spokesmen, all of whom chomp at the bit for retaliation but reluctantly agree to the wisdom of restraint -- as if they don't realize that retaliation is exactly what Mr. Hussein wants. And perhaps just as importantly in the battle for hearts and minds game, they have completely displaced the previously dominant images from that country, of rock-throwing Palestinians and rubber-and-real-bullet shooting police.

But consider for a moment the relative importance of those Scud missile attacks. Certainly the political significance of the potential involvement of Israel cannot be overestimated, but realize that all the many Scuds that Iraq has launched have killed something like six people and injured not many more than 100.

This is to take nothing away from the damage the missiles have done, but clearly the military importance of that damage is far outweighed by their dominance of television coverage of the war. There's one simple reason for that -- they have been launched toward the TV cameras fixed in place in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Anything that takes place in camera range will have an exaggerated importance.

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