No news? So what! TV links us to what goes on in the world WAR IN THE GULF

February 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Forget pictures.

After the 30-second announcement at 8:26 p.m. Saturday that the ground war had started, television didn't even have any real information to report.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney shut down regular briefings and pool pictures for the first 12 hours after the ground war began. (Despite the announcement of a 48-hour blackout, however, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf held a surprise briefing in Saudi Arabia yesterday morning.)

The initial news blackout did not stop the broadcast networks from going straight through prime-time Saturday night in an effort to compete with CNN's wall-to-wall coverage. The networks then continued off-and-on through noon yesterday with gulf coverage, before breaking for sports and entertainment.

Nonetheless, with only dribs of pictures and drabs of information available, watching television this weekend was still a powerful and rewarding experience.

How could that be? How can coverage devoid of news -- and dominated by the blah-blah-blah of "experts" and retired generals -- be compelling and rewarding?

It is because the appeal of watching television news has little to do with fresh information and cogent analysis, with what we have traditionally thought of as news. Instead, the reward this weekend was in feeling connected to something larger.

Television truly was the electronic campfire as the ground war began. And we were part of the tribe huddled around its brightness and warmth, hearing tales of fellow tribesmen out there in the night battling the forces of darkness. There were moments when that feeling of connection to other Americans was an actual physical sensation.

For example, on Saturday night NBC took viewers into a living room in Denver to talk with the parents and teen-age sister of an artilleryman. We joined them in the circle of light surrounding their corduroy recliners and listened to their fears for their son fighting in the desert. Who could not feel connected to them?

And what about the moment shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday, when the presidential helicopter set down on the White House lawn? It is an image we associate with national crises -- President Lyndon B. Johnson arriving at the White House in November 1963, Richard Nixon saying his last farewell after resigning in August 1974.

As ABC viewers watched that image Saturday, a historian pronounced it a "moment of history" that would define the Bush presidency. Who could switch away from that?

That's the larger business that TV was about this weekend. It had almost nothing to do with who was first or last with what piece of information or how little news the Pentagon allowed reporters to get.

Instead, television was this great cultural force in our lives, giving each of us the feeling that our living room was connected to other living rooms, and that they were all connected to the White House.

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