Images from front pound our senses

During a conflict, war is always with us, we just see it now

Analysis

March 26, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Operation Iraqi Freedom has become the war impossible to ignore.

Even though the networks have pulled back from wall-to-wall coverage to try to keep some advertising-sponsored entertainment programming on screen, the ubiquitousness of the war was all-too-apparent to anyone who tried to escape it for a few hours of the Academy Awards or NCAA basketball last weekend.

It has been the same in prime time this week, with news breaks taking viewers back to battlefield images just as they were settling in to watch favorite shows. Daytime viewers yesterday saw soaps and talk shows interrupted for one Pentagon or White House press briefing after another.

The question is how this non-stop song of war being sung by television is affecting us.

Dr. Michael Brody, a Washington-based psychiatrist who teaches television at the University of Maryland College Park, said yesterday that he believes the television images of corpses and captured soldiers identified as Americans over the weekend played a major role in the sharp downturn in the stock market Monday.

"Absolutely, there's a definite connection," Brody said. "The message of those images: `It's not going well. This was supposed to be a cakewalk, and now there's trouble.' Even if the TV was only on in the background, the impact of the pictures sinks in, and then people go back to their jobs on Monday and act on what they saw or heard. And it affects the market."

Brody laughed when asked to compare television coverage of this war with that of Vietnam, which became known as "the living room war" because of the impact TV had on public opinion toward it.

"Television coverage of Vietnam was Huntley-Brinkley [NBC evening news] and Walter Cronkite [CBS evening news], and that was all there was. It was on between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and that was it. Now, it's on 24/7 everywhere," Brody said.

There is no doubt that there is more television coverage of this war than of any that preceded it. Viewers could follow the first Persian Gulf War around the clock on CNN, but that was the only all-news cable channel in 1991. Today, there are three - CNN, MSNBC and Fox - and the competition has made the pace of wartime storytelling even more nonstop and frenetic.

But, according to Brody, there's an even larger difference between this war and every other that came before: 9/11.

"In the past, if war coverage popped while you were watching a ballgame with your child, you could always reassure your child that this is not going to happen under our roof or in our country.

"But, as a result of 9/11, you can't say that anymore, because when people see the war now on television, they associate it with terrorism. And they do that because that's what the administration has done repeatedly in its media messages.

"Seeing this war on TV goes right to our basic uncertainty. And not being able to escape that coverage is a loss of control. And I think that wears on us. It's very, very stressful."

The inability of viewers to escape the war could be a good thing, according to Phil Seib, Nieman Professor of Journalism at Marquette University and author of The Global Journalist: News and Conscience in a World of Conflict.

"There are two ways to look at it. You could see it as an encouraging change in that all this force feeding via television is making Americans more aware of the harsh realities of the rest of the world, which is something that most Americans are quite good at otherwise ignoring," Seib said.

"On the other hand," he said, "what concerns me, especially in the coverage using embedded journalists, is that war is becoming television. ... We're along for the ride with these soldiers and we lose the larger context of what is going on. It's war as entertainment, and that is not good."

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, agreed about the saturation of American media culture - network to cable to Web page - with the war in Iraq. But, in comparing what's happening in the media today with the homeland in World War II, he insists a distinction must be made.

"Yes, this war is everywhere. Yes, it's on our e-mail. Yes, it's on TV. No, you can't get away from it," Thompson said. "But, for the most part for most of us, it's the media coverage of the war that you can't get away from. In World War II, you couldn't get away from war, because it penetrated all of American culture in a palpable and powerful way.

"In World War II, you couldn't buy a new car because they weren't making any. You couldn't buy certain products because they were rationed. Now, you look at AOL and images of the war pop up, and that's a nuisance. In World War II, you looked across the table and more likely than not your father or brother was gone."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might not be the first person who comes to mind when one thinks of the relationship between television and consciousness, but he also was comparing media coverage of the Iraq war with that of World War II yesterday.

"Think about the difference," he said during a Pentagon briefing. "In World War II, there was no television. ... People would go to movies because at the beginning of the movie there would be a 15-minute preview [newsreel] of what took place not the day before, or the minute before, or the second before, or what was taking place at that very moment. No, it was a summary of the week's news from World War II.

"And now what we're seeing on television is every second another slice of what's actually happening over there. It is a breathtaking sight to see and it does leave people with the impression that this war has been going on for days and weeks and months.

"It was just 1 o'clock Friday that the air war began. But it even seems like it's been weeks to me."

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