The 'Shock and Awe' of It All

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Barry Diller is bolting from Vivendi Universal Entertainment as Mel Karmazin hangs in at Viacom Inc., but nobody cared much about that seemingly mundane stuff last week — except perhaps Barry and Mel.

Last Wednesday evening, President Bush authorized a "surgical strike" on Iraq, rather than the long anticipated "shock-and-awe" assault that the world had braced itself for, thanks to alarmist briefings from the Pentagon.

From the start of that surgical strike, the world as we knew it changed. The cable newsgathering organizations were there, 24/7, documenting it all and providing non-stop coverage of the horrifying events that were finally unfolding 6,000 miles away.

By last Thursday morning, the cable news networks had stopped running ads — which ironically have now become some kind of comforting symbol of domestic well-being, rather than the pesky annoyances that interrupt programming during safer times.

People in the streets of New York lined up at places like sports bars, where all TV sets were tuned into news of yet another strike on Baghdad. Around noon last Thursday, there had been yet another strike on the capital, but not yet the anticipated shock-and-awe assault.

War is a messy and unpredictable business, and this one is no different. People are fearful and confused, turning to cable news networks to learn what is going on in the world at large — a role that the broadcast networks had largely abdicated, at least temporarily, last Thursday evening.

CBS took advantage in what appeared to be a lull in the war action and ran the first of its scheduled "March Madness" college basketball games, while NBC ran its popular series Friends.

And that's exactly what they should have done. Viewers by now are habituated to turn to Cable News Network when madness erupts somewhere on the globe.

Meanwhile, surfing back to cable, CNN reporters last Thursday night were speculating on why the war game had changed — and whether Bush would indeed order the shock-and-awe attack at all.

After the first strike, there was a lot of reporting on whether Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was dead or alive. CNN reporters noted that the war was looking like a more methodical exercise, as our military forces were trying to size up what exactly was happening with Iraq's leadership.

Last Friday morning on my commuter train into Manhattan — replete with armed guards strolling through the cars — the chatter of my fellow passengers was pretty sobering stuff. Some debated if it was healthy to watch so much wall-to-wall coverage of war.

Interestingly some on the train complained that cable's extensive coverage was a dangerous thing. They said our troops are in danger, and the United States was tipping its hand and alerting the enemy as to what our next move might be.

I'm not in that camp. I applaud the cable news outlets for the excellent job they are doing in keeping us informed not only about this war, but for investing their resources to cover related events, like anti-war protests, all over the world — and attempting to provide some realistic assessments about actual or perceived dangers from terrorism.

But honestly, I pray for the day when the commercials are back on the cable news networks, a symbol that the world is perhaps a little safer than it has been since the beginning of the war on Iraq.

But I don't know. The shock and awe campaign just ensued.

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