TV Linked Our Living Rooms to the Scene of Battle WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It was not a big television moment, but it was an important one.

On the first night of the ground war, NBC went live to one of its reporters in Denver who was with the family of a GI who was near the front of the battle.

The soldier's mother and father sat in matching corduroy recliners in a circle of light in front of the television. His sister sat at the feet of her mother's chair. They all tried to talk about the soldier in the desert. They all cried -- the soldier's sister most of all. It was impossible to watch and not share their suffering.

That's the kind of thing that happened to us night after night in front of our TV sets during the Persian Gulf war. That's the kind of thing television did so well: It connected us with each other, living room to living room. It connected us to the White House, the Pentagon, the United Nations, the desert, Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia and the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.

jTC Like people of an earlier time gathering to hear bards sing of great battles in distant places, like our tribal ancestors huddling around the fire listening to tales of warfare out there in the darkness, television brought us together. As a nation, it made us worry about, cry over and cheer the war together. It was the most profound shared experience Americans have had since the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

That's surely one reason so many of us watched so much television coverage that the term "CNN syndrome" was added to the national vocabulary. It provided a sense of community at a time of crisis, when many of us felt the need to be part of something larger.

Yet, for all the time spent watching, and all the satellite technology available to make for instant and better pictures, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we really saw the war. This is TV journalism we're talking about.

What we mainly saw were pictures of correspondents reporting (or trying to report) on the war. Often, it seemed, the war was presented as entertainment, with reporters and anchors in the roles of leading men and women.

Surely the emphasis on pictures of correspondents was in part the result of severe Pentagon restrictions, the nature of an air war that was fought above the clouds and the result of low Allied casualties. Pictures of correspondents were often all the networks had.

We did occasionally see pictures of the real victims, which gave us some sense of the human price of waging war. But compare the seconds of screen-time that civilians hit by a Scud attack in Tel Aviv got with the many minutes of correspondents, like CNN's Charles Jaco or NBC's Arthur Kent, donning gas masks and telling us a missile reportedly had been launched in their direction.

Hero-in-danger is the term screenwriters use for that entertainment formula. Peter Arnett, CNN, live from Baghdad. Bob McKeown, CBS, live from Kuwait City. It makes for compelling television. But it is considerably less impressive as journalism.

The liberation of Kuwait City may be the best example of how TV tended to cover the war. McKeown got there ahead of most of the Allied troops with a portable satellite dish that allowed his crew to transmit live.

But what did CBS choose to show us? Pictures of McKeown with Kuwaitis standing behind him and cheering, making the correspondent the focus of the coverage, not the death or destruction in the city and nearby countryside. It was more than a day before CBS was able to show us the killing ground on the highway to Iraq. In CBS' defense, access was restricted. But, while the bloody business of war was being done on that highway, we saw live pictures of McKeown and the smiling Kuwaitis.

That is one of the great ironies of gulf coverage: For all the new technology and promise of seing the war live, we saw so little war at all. Film-maker Ken Burns showed us more of the Civil War using only still photographs taken over a century ago.

But that doesn't cheapen what happened to us culturally. You could draw a line from all of us sitting in front of our television screens straight back to the ancient Greeks hearing Homer's accounts of the Trojan War.

The emotions evoked were more intense for us, because we were sometimes seeing or hearing about events as they were happening, with the outcome undecided. It was satellite technology meeting the oral tradition and giving birth to the instant, prime-time, real-life epic.

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