Cover Story

Ultimate reality TV

The war is showing how TV can make us all witnesses to a historic event

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

On Wednesday night, March 19, there were no homicides, shootings, or armed robberies in the city of Milwaukee. Apparently, the criminals were staying at home like the rest of the country, watching the war.

The phenomenon of the country temporarily shutting down-not buying things, not going to entertainment events, just staying at home glued to the TV-in the face of a collective national event now has a name: the CNN effect.

The CNN effect at the onset of the Iraq war was nothing like that of Sept. 11. On March 20, the first full day of coverage, a Friends rerun beat war coverage in the ratings, but still 72.3 million viewers-over a fourth of the population-tuned in to the war.

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NBC played entertainment programming like Friends along with a special war edition of Dateline to win the ratings battle with 18.2 million viewers. CBS switched back and forth between the war and the NCAA basketball tournament, scoring 13.9 million viewers. ABC preempted its regularly scheduled programs with all-war coverage for 10.9 million viewers, taking the extraordinary step of going commercial-free.

Fox won the cable news battle, with 7.9 million watching the Fox News Channel, plus 7.8 million more watching the simulcast on regular Fox stations. CNN, which also made the financially costly decision to run without commercials, had 7.3 million, with 2.2 million more watching the same coverage on Headline News.

But in a time when new reality shows such as Married by America and All American Girl are faltering, there can be no doubt that the ultimate reality show is the war with Iraq.

The operations of war are normally shrouded in secrecy, but military leaders have opened themselves up to the media as never before. They have even allowed reporters, armed with video phones and satellite communications equipment, to be "embedded" into combat units.

In addition, the major broadcasters and 24-hour cable news networks in America now have international equivalents, such as England's Sky Network (owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox) and Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news channel.

As a result, viewers can watch the war like watching a football game, with play-by-play announcers, instant replays, and color commentary from retired generals. The television coverage presents the point of view of both the coalition forces and, in some cases, the Iraqis they are attacking.

In one remarkable TV moment, shots of U.S. bombers taking off were juxtaposed with shots of their target, the city of Baghdad. Waiting for the planes to get there and the "shock and awe" phase of the war to begin, announcer Brit Hume of Fox News seemed a little impatient, waiting for something to happen.

At one point, the camera from the hotel where reporters were staying zeroed in on the headquarters of the Republican Guards, just waiting for it to blow up. After a little while, pitiful sparks of anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky, and then the bombs and cruise missiles did indeed fall, and the cityscape lit up with huge explosions, fires, and billowing smoke.

Biases were evident. A British reporter in Baghdad-in a Sky News feed carried by Fox-was describing what he was going through as the bombs fell, clearly feeling shock, awe, and fear. He began to commiserate, like much of the British public, with what the poor Iraqi civilians were going through, when he was cut off by gung-ho Fox anchor Shepherd Smith, who explained that those Iraqi citizens were being liberated.

As Fox flew the flag, the other networks were letting the other side have its say. ABC's Peter Jennings did a long feature on the protests, including an interview with two demonstrators, tossing them sympathetic, softball questions that makes one appreciate Fox's Bill O'Reilly.

But the reporters were on top of the story-even in the story. Military veteran and now rookie reporter for Fox Oliver North was in the helicopter just in front of the one that crashed, witnessing the first American and British casualties of the war.

Another Fox correspondent was tagging along with the SEALS when they captured the oil depots on the Persian Gulf, thwarting an Iraqi plan to blow them up and create an environmental and economic catastrophe.

War is no TV show, of course, and watching visual images-without the stifling heat of the chemical suits and gas masks, without the grit of the sandstorms, and without the danger of actually being shot at-gives only the appearance of war, not its reality.

But it does show what television can do when the technology is not wasted on game shows and salacious sit-coms, interconnecting viewers with their nation and the rest of the world, making them witnesses, of a sort, to history as it happens.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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