Let's Televise the War

Networks use video cameras for wallpaper, not for storytelling

Tool around the Internet and you can quickly find plenty of criticism of television for failing to present a comprehensible picture of what the hell is going on in Iraq, to make sense of all that audio and video that pours in via satellite to New York and Atlanta.

I tend to agree. The more you watch, the less you understand. This seems particularly true for the cable news networks, which function like a multimedia wire service disgorging an endless stream of exploding bombs, rolling armaments, ragged refugees and talking heads. They struggle to assemble the whole picture, but somehow come up short. "What this war needs is a good editor," writes Lt. Wendell Cochran, who teaches at the Army's School of Communications in Fort Benning, Ga.

It may be an impossible task. War is chaotic. And the generals and their civilian managers on both sides are no doubt trying to conceal their tactics. If your own people are confused, you can bet the enemy is. Deception is part of war too.

Nonetheless, TV could be doing a better job. One way would be to make better use of its most potent weapon, the video camera. The networks have put ENG crews in harm's way, go to great expense and trouble to bring the video home and then as often as not use it as wallpaper, as an ever-changing background collage of war images for anchors, reporters and talking heads. They crowd out the video with distracting crawls and other superfluous graphics.

Editors of newspapers and newsweeklies seem to understand the power of the image better than TV producers do. As part of its daily section devoted to war coverage, The New York Times
has set aside an entire newspaper spread for the most compelling photos from Iraq.

For all its power, video has some inherent disadvantages to the still image. The photograph, whether digital or film, has more detail and resolution. The difference between a frame of video and a 35mm still is the difference between translucent and transparent. Maybe we'll have HDTV in time for the next war.

I also think the average still photographer takes more care in looking for the right angle, the right light, the right moment and the right composition, even if he or she is in a war situation. The photographs that are published are chosen from thousands of others and carefully prepared—cropped and enhanced—in a darkroom or in PhotoShop.

Another thing about stills is that they are still. You can sit there with your cup of coffee and study them. You can begin to get a sense of the event, the place or the people. You have time to reflect and respond emotionally and intellectually. You clip them, or reprint them or pin them on the wall. Even when out of sight, they are hanging there in your mind. The famous raising of the flag on Iwo Jima was filmed, but it was Joe Rosenthal's photograph that inspired the nation and became an American icon.

While the newspaper and magazine editors handle their images with care, TV producers treat much of their video as if it were a nuisance, something to help fill the screen while the reporters, anchors and crawls have their say. The video is seldom the show. The images never get their own spread as they do in the Times. Ever see the nature shot that ends the last minute or so of CBS Sunday Morning? Why isn't there a place in the 24/7 war news day for a similar visual essay?

I was watching a packaged report on Fox last Thursday night. The video swept by, a serious of short clips edited together with little relevance to the voiceover and no relevance to the two decks of crawls. The video also had to compete with Fox's waving flag in the upper left-hand corner and its animated bug on the lower left. I don't remember what the report was about; I don't remember the video. No wonder the public is having trouble following the war on TV.

For irony, I turn to CNBC and Forest Sawyer. At the end of his late-night report, he sets aside time for photo stills. Great idea. Except that at least a third of the screen is given over to crawls and animated graphics of the grossest sort. Vertical bars on the left-hand side promote Brian Williams and a crawl on the bottom thoughtlessly grinds out facts. Sawyer doesn't showcase the images. He insults them.

The networks have apparently put a bunch of children raised on MTV and videogames in charge of their on-screen looks and their editing consoles. It's time for the grownups to take over, reclaim the screens, kill the crawls and use video to lift the fog of war, not thicken it.

Jessell may be reached at hjessell@reedbusiness.com


War Stories

The networks had nearly 50 reporters in and around Iraq and last week, a few of them took time to talk to Broadcasting & Cable's Allison Romano about life during wartime