The media coverage of the Iraq war was so perfectly adapted to television that it often seemed that the war had been turned into a television show, becom- ing like all television shows, a celebration of itself, and possibly, of war itself. There were differences between the US and Canadian coverage, particularly in the lead up to the war, but once the shooting started those differences became miniscule.
The CBC and BBC did avoid out-and-out partisanship, unlike US news services, which competed with one another in patriotic imagery while maintaining that the coverage they provided was fair and unbiased. Fox broadcast inter- views with British and American soldiers with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background, CNN used the US government’s own name for the war, ”œOperation Iraqi Freedom,” while MSNBC used a logo that superimposed an American flag over scenes of Iraq.
The news anchors used the word ”œwe,” as in this from NBC anchor Tom Brokaw: ”œOne of the things that we don’t want to do is to dismantle the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we are going to own this country.”
As journalism, it was appalling, but journalism is not necessarily what television provides, it is simply a cover ”” what it says it provides. In its fundamentals, almost all TV news is ”œperformance TV” ”” showbiz rather than ”œfor the record” journalism.
In TV we don’t ”œreport” the news, we ”œpresent” it, and those who present it are performers, at best ”œreporter-per- formers.” Peter Jennings makes $10 million a year. Why? Because that figure is an accurate reflection of the investment ABC has in him. Many read as well as he does and some report better, but since television hasn’t invested in them they have no value to television.
Lloyd Robertson and Peter Mansbridge, like Peter Jennings and his fellow news anchors everywhere, last so long in their well-paid jobs because TV has created a ”œpublic” for them. They, and the audience that watches and listens to them as a matter of habit, are locked in a perma- nent embrace.
When we watch TV news we should be aware of the psy- chology of the reporter/performer and the debt they have incurred to their employer who has put them on TV, made them rich and will keep them there until they drop.
Print’s journalistic ideal was a good writer/reporter with no ties to and no fear of the powers that be, except, of course, for his or her editor. In contrast to this, no performer wants to do anything but please the viewer. The very word ”œreporter” implied someone who was opposed to keeping secrets, someone who thought the truth, however embarrassing, might be useful. TV quickly put an end to the free and slightly subversive spirit print had created.
It follows that any reporter/per- former on TV is more important than his or her material. The story is transito- ry, but their face and voice is their for- tune and an asset that belongs not only to them but to the company that ”œmade” them.
That does not mean that a TV ”œpresenter” would make up or falsify a news story, that’s not the danger. What’s presented on TV as news is probably more accurate than news in the heyday of print. But accuracy is much less impor- tant in news than pursuing the right story. The right story should lead to the truth, and accuracy is only one aspect of that truth and not the most important one.
But for TV and its reporter/per- formers the right story need not lead to the truth provided it goes where the audience wants it to go, that is, wher- ever it will be most pleasing. This is the reason TV constantly takes polls, to find out what the audience wants ”” where it wants the story to go. If the story isn’t taking us in the right direc- tion TV will change it so that it does.
TV doesn’t ask, is this war justi- fied? Such a question calls for a con- clusion for which viewers will have to wait and with which they conceivably might disagree. What TV asks instead is, ”œis the war popular?” and most important, ”œis the number who approve of it growing or declining?” It subtly puts the viewer in the dri- ver’s seat.
What is the effect of making war popular entertainment? What if the truth or falsehood of the story has nothing to do with the story but everything to do with the story we, as viewers, are prepared to ”œentertain”?
The original concept of news on television was a function of its scarcity ”” the limited time TV was willing to ”œgive” to news. Now that we have whole channels devoted to nothing but news, we are losing our taste for ”œthe news” as it is currently presented on national TV newscasts. These after all imitate newspapers, with a variety of stories reflect- ing what editors think is important.
TV’s natural tendency is to go for the story that’s ”œhot” right now, SARS, Mad Cow, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the exclusion of all else. Traditional TV newscasts don’t have the airtime to exploit a really good story. They can’t compete successfully against a story that is continuous and sculpted by polls specifically to please us by feeding back whatever it is we find most exciting.
This kind of news derives its importance and its lasting relevance not from its subject but from us, its viewers. It becomes a true mirror of who we are. Since everyone involved in creating TV news will do whatever is needed to keep and hold our atten- tion, it follows that what they create is an accurate reflection not of the story but of those they are trying to please ”” us.
Joseph Campbell, the great anthropologist, pos- sessed a marvellous faculty for seeing cultures, even his own, in the light of history. In the 1920s he expressed his revulsion for ”œAnglo-Saxon exploitism which mutilates the ”˜prim- itive’ cultures it encounters.” Such a controversial observation might have illuminated the coverage of the Iraq war for British, American, Australian and, indeed, Canadian viewers, but it would not have been popular.
Accurately reported facts will tell future generations a good deal about the world we inhabit but little or noth- ing about us. For that, they will have to turn to the fantasies we eagerly (if only temporarily) embraced ”” like the one about democracy spreading throughout the Middle East at the command and under the guidance of an American president whose main pretext for going to war was seizing weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found.
Never before have we had so many explanations for a war as for the war in Iraq, but each new reason expanded the airtime devoted to explaining why war was necessary and reduced the airtime of those opposed to the war, or kept them off TV entire- ly, and that was as true of the BBC and the CBC as any of the others.
Newspapers and magazines are not subject to time restrictions. They can never convincingly use the argu- ment that there ”œjust wasn’t room” ”” TV’s mantra.
In television, when the pressure is on, ”œmanaged” news expands to take all the time there is. For want of a better word the TV reporter/performer becomes ”œembedded” in material not of his or her choosing. Since the entertainment angle is also embedded in TV, its ”œjournalists” have to rely on their good looks and their ”œlikeability” ”” to nudge the ratings upwards and beat the competition.
When the US Army res- cued Jessica Lynch, a winsome charmer from the small town of Palestine, West Virginia, so quaint and peace- ful it pretty much represented the American dream, coverage of the wider war was suddenly eclipsed by Saving Private Lynch. Not only was there dra- matic night vision footage of her being removed from an Iraqi hos- pital, where she was apparently well treated, but later videotape of her being flown out to Germany, and live coverage of her family being flown in from West Virginia to meet her. This had nothing to do with reporting the war, and everything to do with the arc of the story line. Private Lynch’s War. Naturally, NBC is doing the biopic.
There are, of course, distinctions between the BBC and CBC and the main American networks, but that is because the truly big stories most often feature America. The BBC didn’t main- tain a lofty neutrality vis-à-vis the Falklands War in 1982, and the CBC night after night compresses Canada into what’s happening in Ottawa. These are not mistakes but manifestations of the nature of the beast. To par- aphrase Tip O’Neill, all news is local.
We have made television an enter- tainment venue. Malcolm Muggeridge once said that talking about religion on TV was like playing Bach in a whore- house. That is why the correspondents pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as the fighting stops. The focus of the stories, which continue to be about Iraq, switch to Washington and London, since that is where the cam- eras are permanently located.
The postwar story isn’t so much about the reconstruction of Iraq; as about the Congressional debate for the funding of the reconstruction. It’s not inside Baghdad so much as Inside the Beltway.
I left the CBC some 30 years ago, resigning as executive producer of the corporation’s Sunday night public affairs show. My successor was asked how he pro- posed to change things. ”œWe will concentrate more on what is interesting,” he said, ”œand less on what’s important.” I thought he’d made a fool of himself, but he hadn’t, he represented the future now fully arrived.