The danger of judging this war by the ratings


THE ANNOUNCER on the Los Angeles all-news radio station was ripping through the headlines from the gulf war. After the number of sorties and missile launchings and such were given came the news that the war was getting good ratings on television.

It was reported with the same misplaced sincerity that has accompanied the stock market segments on television's war coverage. The logic somewhere back there seems to be that if the viewers are watching and the stock market is going up, then this must be a good war.

The situation was reminiscent of a recent observation in a talk by Orioles announcer Jon Miller about the way we appreciate movies these days. A few decades ago, he pointed out, someone standing in line for the latest John Wayne release would be talking about how good the Duke was last time out and hoping he could match that in this film. Nowadays, the talk would be about what the box office was on the opening weekend and if that per screen average didn't pick up this film might be a flop.

The TV ratings can be seen as the war's box office. Certainly it is of importance that the television audience for President Bush's speech last Wednesday reached historic levels, a fact that shows how the nation was galvanized by these events. And the coming of age of CNN during this crisis is an important development in the industry. But beyond that, the TV ratings are just not that important.

Or, at least, they shouldn't be. It's bad enough that the networks have built new sets and commissioned new graphics for their war coverage, which comes complete with snappy titles like Showdown in the Gulf, packaging the fighting as they would any other product. But the real danger is that the nation will begin judging the war not by how just or how well-run or how destructive it is, but by how entertaining it is.

If there is one area where those people who blame television for the decline and fall of Western civilization might have a point, it is in the fact that TV's pervasive presence has led us to look on entertainment not as an occasional welcome diversion, but as an inalienable right to which we must have immediate and constant access, often at the expense of other more important matters, such as careful thought and analysis.

So, if important issues, like war or politics or such, are going to pre-empt normal programming, then they better be entertaining

or howls of protest will arise across the land.

There is already evidence that we elect our presidents this way, judging them not on their positions and beliefs, but on their television advertisements and sound-bite-length quips; in other words, on their ability to entertain us.

And you have to wonder how electing public officials on thbasis of such values then affects performance in office. For not only does television lead us to expect entertainment, we also expect a certain type of drama, stories that are neatly resolved, quickly and succinctly. And perhaps we demand such stories of our politicians.

Face it, war is a very dramatic undertaking. Diplomacy is notPerhaps, the approval ratings of presidents always go up in times of such international incursions -- not just with Iraq which has sent Bush's to an all-time high, but with Panama and Grenada as well -- because not only of the traditional rally-round-the-flag reaction that comes with warfare, but also because on some level we are applauding our government for providing us with drama, with entertainment.

Look, Bush's approval rating plummeted when he tried to grapple with the burgeoning deficit. It's entertaining to say "Read my lips, no new taxes." It has the same sort of appeal as drawing a line in the sand and daring a disgusting dictator to cross it. It's something TV can communicate.

But it's boring to deal with the realities of balancing the nation's checkbook and paying the bills. Just as it's boring to try to appreciate the complex history and multi-level ramifications of the United States joining Arab countries in taking on Iraq to liberate Kuwait. The people who try to do that sort of stuff get their own form of bad ratings; they get voted out of office.

If ever there was a war made for television, this one is it. It was neither a slow buildup that went relatively uncovered for a number of years, such as Vietnam, nor a quick strike that was over before the cameras could get in place, such as Grenada and Panama.

No, it was a quick buildup that eventually came complete with a deadline, all of which gave the networks plenty of time to get ready for their coverage which would focus on a relatively limited area. The military term theater of operations took on another meaning.

Despite their packaging, the networks have done a decent and responsible job covering the first days of fighting. Though they clearly and justifiably chafe at the restrictions on information placed by the Pentagon -- which showed its own media savvy yesterday by placing Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf on the Sunday morning news programs -- you sense a certain appropriate nervousness, both on the part of news executives interviewed and personnel on the air, about how they are going to handle it if information from a fighting front begins inundating them.

But the real danger of what TV could do to this most televised of wars does not come from the prospect of transmitting horrendous pictures or compromising information, but in turning this war into just another prime time program.

It's exciting now with the jets screaming off and the fire in the sky over Baghdad and the bravery of the correspondents and the right stuff swagger of the returning pilots and the luckily nearly harmless terror of the incoming missiles and the continuing demonization of the designated villain.

But what about a week from now, a month from now? What about when we start seeing pictures that weren't picked by the military of the destruction our bombs have caused? What about a bloody yard-by-yard land war? What about six months from now?

The danger is that we as a nation will begin to turn against the war not because of any lucid and coherent arguments that can be made against fighting Iraq, but simply because we no longer find it entertaining.

So maybe we should be keeping an eye on the war's TV ratings.

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