The break-ins can occur at any time. A television viewer could be watching anything from a basketball game to American Idol to Seinfeld, and all are just as susceptible to the attacks. They could be feeling good about how everything in their life is going, content to be escaping to the relaxation of television, getting a rare chance to evade the rigors of reality and live vicariously though their favorite television characters. That’s when television jumps in and attacks, breaking the stay in fantasyland with harsh reality.
The first words said are something like, “We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this war update.” Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather or whoever the particular station being watched has delegated to the role appears on the screen and informs the nation that a bomb has just been dropped, a soldier has been killed or an oil plant has been set ablaze.
Then they go live to the field reporter embedded with the troops, and the reporter tells that the troops are moving at a steady pace and encountering moderate opposition. The pictures of the reporter and the surrounding area, which usually is comprised of dunes of sand encompassed in a sandstorm, are never clear enough to really see what is going on. The field reports are more reminiscent of what internet-based movies look like when using a slow modem: The audio is transferred flawlessly, but the picture moves frame by frame, pausing here, skipping there, until the average viewer finds himself closing his eyes and simply listening to the report.
They irritate the viewer further by strategically placing this report in the top right-hand corner of the screen and building a cluster of incomprehensible and confusing graphics around it, in essence “embedding” the report of the embedded journalist in an aesthetically unpleasing collage of illustrated information. A news ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen to keep everyone informed on the latest developments. The left side of the screen is filled with much of the same information as the news ticker in bulleted lists, often complete with expert analysis. Graphical displays illustrating maps of Iraq, the routes U.S. troops will take to reach Baghdad or precisely how a patriot missile works fill the remaining space on the already crowed screen. Along the top of the viewing area, each station’s unique logo containing captivating catchphrases such as “America at Odds” or “A Nation in Turmoil” anchors the madness. It gets so that the viewer becomes frustrated and confused, desperately trying to figure out which option he should follow, his eyes darting from top to bottom, left to right until he’s nearly driven to the brink of insanity.
After delivering a report filled with clichéd language and official phrases—“Operation Iraqi Freedom” is ubiquitous, popping up in every sentence, picture and illustration throughout the duration of the coverage—they send the viewer back to his regularly scheduled program to once again escape the worries that reality brings.
These interruptions become so common that the back-and-forth path between war coverage and normal programming becomes hazy; the two almost begin to run together. Switching rapidly between al-Jazeera and Al Roker, platoons and cartoons, urban warfare and 24, American Eagles and American Idol, one can’t help but become a bit confused. As CNN becomes CSI and Tony Blair begins to resemble Tony Saprano, the casual observer becomes like a palindrome personified, never knowing if he is coming or going.
The coverage is so substantial that one becomes consumed by it, overwhelmed at times by the quantity. Don’t get me wrong here—it is incredibly important for the war to be covered, and to be covered far more than any other topic. I understand as a journalist how big of an issue the war is, and furthermore, as an American, I understand what the situation means to our country and its people.
I compare this situation to the terrorist attacks on Sept.11, 2002. The attacks came as a surprise, encompassing the nation in fear (many people were held in “shock and awe,” if you will). Daylong relevant news coverage was more than substantiated by the fact that Americans needed to know what was happening. However, after a couple days, the coverage grew tiresome. Though we wanted to know what was happening, we also yearned to regain as much normalcy as possible. We were told that we should go about living our lives like we normally would have had nothing ever happened.
The same should be true for the current situation. Americans, of course, want to know what’s occurring halfway around the world, but we also want to retain a sense of ordinary, everyday life without having to worry about the repulsiveness of war. Television, a mainstay of everyday life, should be sensitive to that fact. Most of the content covered in special reports that interrupt and compromise everyday life can be reported during a regular newscast and still preserve its relevance, which would enable viewers to maintain their daily routine, using television as a peaceful escape from reality, and still remain informed.
When M-16s become interchangeable with MTV, “behind enemy lines” and Behind the Music begin to sound the same and you can’t tell the difference between The Real World and the real world, you know something has to be wrong.