SURREALISTIC, muffled reports from correspondents wearing gas
masks; the sounds of bombs dropping; parades of military experts
spilling a new lexicon of "sorties" and "collateral damage"; giddy
initial reports of coalition military prowess; the confusing reports
of coalition bombs hitting an Iraqi baby formula factory, or was it
a biological weapons factory?
These visions of the Persian Gulf war as prime-time spectacle
have alternately fascinated and terrified American viewers.
But has it all served the public well? Several media experts say
it largely has not.
Criticism of television news has always been focused on the
traditional broadcast techniques of live reports, the 10-second
sound bite, and the quest for action versus talking heads.
But these old concerns take on new meaning as the dramatic
television coverage of the Gulf war - much of it live - gives the
medium unprecedented importance in diplomatic concerns, public
opinion, and even in the morale of troops watching from their Saudi
desert bases, say authorities on mass communication.
"We're into new territory here," observes Jay Rosen, a research
fellow at the Gannett Foundation Media Center at Columbia University
in New York.
The traditional weaknesses of television news, Dr. Rosen says,
"now come together with this extraordinary, grave moment and a whole
(television) history of unreflective behavior (becomes) more serious
because of the centrality of it to events."
Experts see problems in both the dramatic instant reporting of
the war, which has been the most riveting and controversial part of
television coverage of the crisis, as well as other aspects of the
television news packaging.
The overall problem with the television coverage, experts say, is
that it has largely played on the theatricality of this historic
time. They point to the martial music used in news programs, the
special war logos used as if packaging a miniseries, and titles
reminiscent of cowboy movies such as CBS's "Showdown in the Gulf."
The theatricality, says Rosen, makes viewers feel as if they are
present at a kind of command center where the drama is taking place.
"It draws us in as spectators. The experts can tell us how a war is
conducted but they can't tell us how to conduct ourselves as
"When we consent to war we need to keep considering and
reconsidering what we've consented to, what are the moral and
ethical meanings, the moral implications.... How do we come to
secure a morally sound basis for our belief (in the war)?"
What is missing is a "civil voice" like the ethicist,
anthropologist, theologian, or even the poet, who each can give
viewers something to reflect on, Rosen says. …