Bombs Bursting On-Air
Shock and awe finally showed up
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/23/2003 7:00:00 PM
I have never been shot at, or traveled in a war zone, or tried to figure out what I would report from a war zone that wouldn't be naïve. But I'm old enough to be awed at technology that can bring us images from the war and startled by the destructiveness when, starting at about 1 p.m. on Friday, tons and tons of bombs destroyed dozens of buildings in Baghdad in just about 10 minutes.
Those night-sight green camera views, which, for the first 2 1/2 days showed us hardly anything, showed it all.
Until Friday afternoon. I'd heard some things from viewers and peers that sounded almost like disappointment that we were not seeing much blood and guts. Prior to the beginning of the war, many of us (OK, people like me) feared that President Bush seemed just too anxious to blow Iraq to smithereens. Once war started, though, it seemed just as likely that American forces were trying to beat Iraq by employing something much more insidious: psychology—followed by a massive rain of bombs.
A few hours into the war, we were hearing that the real battle was for Iraqis' minds: to get the Republican Guard to give up and to kill Saddam Hussein on their way out the door. It was Donald Rumsfeld as Tokyo Rose. Then, all of a sudden, the bombs came, and, to quote Peter Arnett on NBC and MSNBC, it was "just like out an action movie except this was real." Earlier, he said to Tom Brokaw, "This is shock and awe! Shock and awe, Tom."
Coverage of this war, so far, has been intelligent most of the time. But, at a time when the CNN-vs.-Fox News battle for supremacy has been what TV critics have been watching, no network did better than MSNBC, which astutely forgot about gimmicks and just covered this amazing story, wisely borrowing talent from Newsweek and The Washington Post and even, in the case of Arnett, The National Geographic Explorer. MSNBC often twinned its coverage with NBC. But, with NBC talent like John Seigenthaler now handed over to MSNBC, the cable network just looked better, clearer, smarter.
MSNBC, in fact, has been much better reporting this war than it has been reporting anything else in the past six months, when it seemed far too preoccupied trying to find a programming gimmick it could call its own. It's biggest miscue was have an on-screen clock count down the hours until, by President Bush's timetable, the war might begin.
The idea of picking a star reporter in any war is odious—I would not have wanted to be Arthur Kent, the "Scud Stud" of 1991—but it would be impossible to not single out NBC's David Bloom, whose running commentary from a convoy of the 3rd Infantry moving up from southern Iraq, shown extensively on NBC and MSNBC, was particularly eloquent and illuminating. NBC used new gear from Florida-based Maritime Telecommunications Network that (most of the time) pushed the quality of the video out of the videophone realm into something that looked much more like broadcast quality than the competition's. Usually, Maritime builds systems for ship-to-shore transmissions. As our tech writer Ken Kerschbaumer pointed out, "outfitting a system for the deserts of Iraq is obviously as far afield from the ocean as one can get."
In the first days of the war, trying to cover the strategy of the war was a lot harder then covering hundreds or thousands of bombs and missiles bursting in air on Friday. If there is something that the television era is truly guilty of creating, it's the idea that absolutely everything should be entertaining (and except for most hockey games, the medium has just about done it). War is hell, but, without dramatic footage, the hell with war.
Well, the war spectacular finally showed up.
It might be that coverage of Vietnam showed the horror of battle because the United States didn't win it, and, over a period of years, not days, that fact was brought home on the evening news.
But, if television technology has vastly improved since Vietnam, so has military tech. In Iraq, our missiles generally go where they are supposed to. The journalists in Iraq are giving viewers independent proof of that, and Rumsfeld in a Friday press conference seemed to suggest that, as unpaid endorsers for the new technology of war, embedded journalists are powerful persuaders.
And compliant ones. On Friday, as ABC reported the apparent push of U.S. ground troops toward Baghdad, Diane Sawyer assured us, "We will not let you miss a thing if the bombing begins." A moment later, she added, "It could be a very, very destructive period ahead."
She was right.
Bednarski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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