A few evenings back, I tuned into my least favorite network "talent," Dan Rather -- a man who has spent his entire career failing to measure up to the CBS standard-bearers, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Anyway, I caught the ever-somber Rather as he was about to "cut to Kuwait" for a telephone interview with a correspondent. But the phone line opened a few seconds before the reporter in Kuwait had expected, and Rather caught his guy in the middle of a tirade directed, apparently, at someone on his production team. We heard the words "some idiot," and with that Rather immediately got off the line. "Well," said the resident CBS prima donna, obviously miffed, "I don't know what that's all about, but we will catch [so and so] later."
No doubt "so and so" will hear about his lack of professionalism, which embarrassed CBS's highest-priced "talent" -- worse yet, while he was on the air. Of course, perhaps the reporter in Kuwait had, at the time, been under some duress. He was in a war zone, after all. But the circumstances didn't matter; only the production values matter.
And it's production values that seem to be dictating all the coverage of the war with Iraq. Now we have the "embedded" journalists, who, so far as we have seen on television, are spending all their time inside tanks as they move, sporadically opposed, towards Baghdad.
I don't know who is to blame for all this orchestration and melodrama, but Ted Koppel's name comes to mind. What we see coming out of Iraq can be characterized as a carbon copy of the kind of nonstop televised ringside blather that began in earnest back when the hapless Jimmy Carter was being "held hostage" by those Muslim fundamentalists in Iran who had taken over our embassy. "America Held Hostage: Day [fill in the blank]" was the truly tacky and irresponsible excuse for serious network reporting that Koppel used to launch his career. Every night, we sat through the latest day of hostageship. Koppel took it all so seriously; meanwhile Koppel's employer, ABC, saw the program as their only chance to eat into The Tonight Show audience. Frankly, the public gained more insight from Johnny Carson's opening monologue.
But back to the coverage of this crisis in Iraq: It's important for us to draw an important distinction. Print journalists are different from other media people. For most of the public, however, it's the people holding video cameras (or videophones) who will define the war. If for no other reason than the limitations of the television medium, their impression will be heavily reliant on production values. The bombardment the other night was a great sound and light show; it offered great video and great production values. No doubt the television crews got what they could -- which didn't include dead bodies, nor even any interpretation, just "Wows." Yet the show became the impression, and the impression reality. Simple as that.
But it isn't.
Consider the reporters in our tanks who are relaying all these sound bites. They give the impression of being at the center of things, but they aren't. They can't really get the story -- the big picture we all need to understand what's really going on here. The tanks rush to Baghdad, bombs dropping right on line with nearby cameras and fiery launches of cruise missiles from ships at sea: All these images are reshuffled at CNN headquarters -- staged, if you will, to achieve maximum production values. But they are limited to showing the images they can get, and so far that has amounted to a lot of troop movements and very little human suffering.
For those involved in visual reportage, production values have always required staging. Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer, figured that out. We now know that most of his photographs were taken days after the battle had ended. He and his entourage would decide on the shot they wanted, then go about arranging the bodies so as to create the desired effect.
The print journalists who go in harm's way to get their stories rely only upon their skill with language. They use words to create a picture, to invoke thought, to ask the questions. They can't rely on the impact of sounds and light, only the language.
I don't mean to say that photojournalism, complete with the "talent," isn't important; but television will always distort. Yet purveyors of the medium steadfastly claim otherwise. Which makes it all the more troubling that we have come to depend on that medium, more than others, to give us the truth.
Sure, it looks good, and it's even exciting. And nobody can argue that it isn't a depiction of reality. But what parts of the bigger picture are we missing? What are the stories outside the embedded cameras' range? Will we even bother to wonder about these missing pieces in the puzzle while we're so addicted to this new reality show?
And that's the point.
"America Held Hostage."
In more ways than Koppel knew.
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Publication date: 03/27/03