TV struggles to find focus of story with so many fronts

Networks fail to clear confusion, filter the facts

Analysis

March 21, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Reporters wearing gas masks. The night sky over Baghdad eerily lit by anti-aircraft fire. Anchormen flanked by retired generals. Three-D computer graphics aimed at putting viewers in the seat of American war planes. This is war as television spectacle, and by 11 a.m. yesterday it overtook all programming on the major networks and the all-news cable channels -- until prime time, anyway.

Yet, despite a tidal wave of striking images and new information delivered with great urgency, what television news mainly delivered during the first day of warfare was confusion. The coverage was compelling, even mesmerizing, at times. But the more one watched, the greater the confusion as to what it all meant or even what could be said to be true.

As of prime time (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), some of the most basic facts of the story were still up for grabs. Depending upon which network or cable channel one was watching, the core military campaign known as "shock and awe" had either begun -- or not.

"Senior Pentagon officials tell us that, in fact, the `shock and awe' campaign is underway," NBC's Jim Miklaszewski said at 3:40 p.m. yesterday. "It might seem now given the pause in bombing of Baghdad that it is shock and pause, but [there are] thousands of U.S. infantry troops now pouring across the border from Kuwait into Iraq."

At about the same time, CNN was carrying a headline crawl across the bottom of its screen that said, "Shock and Awe put on hold, Pentagon says." The Fox cable channel carried a similar headline: "If you have to ask, it's not Shock and Awe, Pentagon says. Main bombing yet to begin."

As of 9 p.m. (when this story went to press) NBC had not retracted the Miklaszewski report, but MSNBC, its sister cable channel, had started carrying headline crawls quoting central command in Qatar as saying, "Full scale attack will be unmistakable, and this isn't it."

There was similar confusion all day and into the evening regarding the videotape image of Saddam Hussein that appeared on Iraqi television Wednesday night after the first U.S. attack. Even though several networks were by 4 p.m. referring to CIA experts as saying the pictures appeared to be Hussein and not a double, Connie Chung was on CNN at 5:35 p.m. telling viewers the pictures were still "in doubt," and that she would have the full story later on the prime-time program she anchors.

Part of the problem was that television could not find a central narrative through which to tell its story. The medium is most effective when it has a simple story line that it can use to order the dazzling array of pictures and words produced by the kind of all-out effort being expended to cover this war. Without such a core narrative, an inverse law kicks in: As information and images mount, so does confusion.

It might have been a case of opening day jitters, or perhaps just television lost in the initial fog of war. But it didn't help yesterday to have correspondents incessantly using terms such as "deployed," "embedded," "MLRS's" (multiple launch rocket systems) and TLAB's (Tomahawk land and air missile) without any attempt at translation. One couldn't help wondering if the training that the correspondents underwent for the right to be "embedded," or travel, with the troops, might have resulted in a closer identification with the military than ever before.

Embedded television correspondents certainly didn't offer any explanations in their on-air reports on the war yesterday.

CNN last night was playing and replaying a tape of Walter Rodgers diving to the ground as something identified as a shell landed nearby. But outside of a vague sense of danger, the moment revealed almost nothing. Rodgers' videophone image was so hopelessly blurred that he looked like a ghost in a sandstorm, and all one could tell was that he was standing somewhere in the desert. The rules of embedding did not allow him to be specific about where he was.

Typical of the reports by embedded correspondents was one from ABC's Bob Woodruff at about 8 last night. Woodruff told anchorman Peter Jennings that he was with a unit that was supposed to be "going into" Iraq, but that they had been "delayed" for more than five hours. When asked if he knew why he was being delayed, Woodruff replied, "We're actually having trouble getting that information."

At least, ABC stayed with the war during prime time, whereas NBC opted for its cash cow, Friends, and CBS went to coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament. Give ABC credit for that even though it had less to lose due to a weaker Thursday-night lineup than its more successful competitors.

You have to wonder what it says about the state of American television that even a war can't hold the attention of its two oldest and richest networks for a full 24 hours.

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