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Coverage of the war seems to blur the lines between news and entertainment WAR IN THE GULF


Remember the cigarette ad that asked, "Are you smoking more, but enjoying it less?"

When it comes to watching television coverage of the gulf war, the question is, "Are we watching more, but understanding it less?"

In fact, we are getting more TV news about the war than about any event since the Kennedy assassination in 1963. And plenty of us are watching. A Times-Mirror survey released yesterday showed 50 percent of Americans have been more or less continuously plugged into TV coverage since the war started Jan. 16. Pop culture has already added the term "CNN Syndrome" to our vocabulary to describe such viewing habits.

What are we learning from all this viewing? Are we getting the kind of information and analysis we think of as journalism? Or are we getting words and pictures from the real world packaged as prime-time entertainment?

So far, it's mainly been entertainment. The reality of war is being sliced and diced by news producers to fit the formulas of television entertainment.

Take, for example, the innumerable live scenes from Saudi Arabia and Israel where reporters in gas masks tell us that Scud missiles are on the way. What are we reacting to in such scenes? What keeps us riveted to the screen?

Often there was no real information being delivered. The reporter would say that he or she thought a missile was launched, because the sirens were being sounded.

Then, the sirens would stop, and the reporter would say that it was either a false alarm or that a Patriot missile had intercepted the Scud.


The real appeal of such coverage is what screenwriters call hero-in-danger. We watched correspondents, like CNN's Richard Blystone, the way we watch a made-for-TV movie when the camera allows us to look through the assassin's gun sight as the hero walks toward the cross hairs.

In fact, the almost instantaneous nature of new satellite technology allowed just such varied points of view and heightened dramatic tension.

CNN would show correspondent Charles Jaco in Saudi Arabia, indicating that military officials reported Scuds launched at Israel. Cut to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for pictures of reporters putting on gas masks and preparing for the hit.

It is a variation of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock's formula for suspense. Show the audience the assassin's bomb planted under the table. Then show the innocent child sitting down at the table.

The focus in such packaging becomes personality, not information. Our attention and emotions are directed toward the person in danger not any understanding of the larger reasons for the danger. That's one reason everybody suddenly wanted to know who all these CNN reporters -- Peter Arnett, John Holliman, Linda Scherzer, Jaco and Blystone -- were.

And some of the reporters consciously or unconsciously started playing the part of the protagonist or hero in a TV drama.

Blystone, for example, stood on a Tel Aviv rooftop Jan. 17 with reports of incoming missiles and shouted, "Come on, right this way," to a flash of light in the sky. The hero tempting fate, laughing at death.

Blystone's Prometheus was followed by CNN anchorman David nTC French, back in Atlanta, urgently telling his reporter, "You should put on the gas mask. Go to the shelter. Get off the roof." It was the Greek chorus warning the hero, expressing the anxiety and concern the audience members were feeling.

That is not journalism. That is entertainment, some of it is by design. And we should not kid ourselves. When we watch such coverage, we are not watching the war, but reporters covering a war and, perhaps, playing to the camera.

We are watching for a variety of reasons, including the same fascination that draws some to stock car races -- namely, that there might be a wreck.

Stirring the emotions

The greatest hero-in-danger story, of course, has been Arnett, the sole western reporter in Baghdad.

Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president in charge of news gathering, defended Arnett's presence in Iraq as Saddam Hussein's guest, noting that Arnett has been "our only window . . . that allows us to see, however darkly, into Baghdad."

Pictures shown last week of what Arnett said was a plant that bottled milk for babies have been much discussed. But CNN appears to have learned nothing from the discussion. After the Pentagon said the pictures were not a milk bottling plant but a chemical warfare facility, CNN started using the word "purported" when describing pictures out of Iraq.

Wednesday, CNN aired footage of bombed buildings, with dead children in the wreckage. You think viewers reacted to the word "purported" or images of crushed children?

Arnett and CNN could not tell us where the pictures were from or if they were even authentic.

Remember in May 1986, when the evening newscasts on NBC and ABC showed us what Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw said was a nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, viewed by a satellite camera?

The emotions that claim stirred were overwhelming.

The next night, the two networks apologized: What we saw was a grainy picture of a paint factory wall in Turin, Italy.

The CNN pictures are engaging and moving, as was the picture alleged to have been taken at Chernobyl. But, in the case of pictures out of Iraq at least, we have no idea if what we are seeing is real or is as staged as the back lot at Universal Studios. And CNN is increasing the odds that it is being used for propaganda by running with the pictures unedited.

There are other entertainment formulas being used to package this war for prime-time, living-room consumption.

There is the video-game, computer-screen, "Top Gun" imagery of radar-like blips of light scuttling across screens, colliding with other blips and causing a ball of light to appear.

This has mainly been the result of Pentagon-supplied video images showing how successfully allied missions have been executed.

Remember how exciting it was the first time such pictures were shown during the first few days of the war?

But what are we seeing? At best it's an electronic metaphor for an explosion that was purported to have taken place. In fact, under questioning this week during a briefing, one Pentagon official said the big ball of light didn't necessarily "indicate a major hit." It may have been the result of other factors, he said, such as gases being released by the explosion.

So we see a big ball of light. But it may mean nothing except that the missile or bomb exploded. It doesn't mean it hit anything.

They are exciting to watch, though. Aren't they?

Prime-time entertainment

In fairness, some of the problems with coverage are the result of crippling restrictions placed on all journalists by various censors, including those at the Pentagon.

There has been some good work done, too. But mainly what we have been watching these first 2 1/2 weeks is war packaged as prime-time entertainment.

That is not all that surprising. Television is primarily an entertainment medium, which tends to shape other forms of programming to its entertainment formulas.

Bill Moyers -- late one night after hours and hours of talking about such matters -- told me that was maybe the truest truth he knew about television.

But we need to be reminded of the truth more than ever today -- as we are dazzled around-the-clock by video screens with dancing balls of light and mesmerized by the derring-do of reporters in danger.

And we need to understand that truth, if we are to comprehend why so many of us are so addicted to television coverage of the war and if we are to begin to understand the horrible reality of this war itself.

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