The Televised War

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New York— I went to a luncheon last week where some big-name media-beat reporters from New York newspapers spoke. It was off the record, so I can't say who said what. But a couple of points a couple of them made resonated with me.

One: When the TV on the desk at work has the war news on all day, it's kind of hard to watch the war news when you get home at night. Two: the overload of spot news — the Web-cam views of soldiers and sandstorms — cries out for the perspective of, say, The Atlantic Monthly's Michael Kelly, even though it'll be two months before we can read any of it.

A personal escape hatch this past week was into a paperback copy of Kelly's Martyr's Day: A Chronicle of a Small War, about Iraq and the Gulf War. His descriptions of the Baghdad hotels and the eerie calm before the missiles struck — and of the good-humored Iraqis he encounters — take you even further inside the city than CNN's amazing Earthviewer.com satellite close-ups.

Here's what he saw during a pit stop along the harrowing escape from Baghdad to Amman after the missiles hit. "The tracers trailed flaming scarlet and gold against the stars. It looked as if the stars were shooting each other. There were so many stars and so many tracers you could hardly see it all, and I stood gape-mouthed, with my head tilted back in the middle of the gas-station yard, the drizzle falling on my face." The exhilaration of watching tanks roll is one kind of thrill; prose like that is another.

On the home front, the war is all about network news. And as Lifetime Television research chief (and TV historian) Tim Brooks pointed out last week, network news means "cable" these days, a big change from 1991, at least until CNN broke through. Cable-news ratings soared last week, and, as Brooks predicted, Nickelodeon was up, too, as parents sought a safe haven for their kids. Most everyone else was down, as numbers Brooks released showed.

The pattern in '91 was that, after a few weeks, war-weary viewers looked elsewhere, Brooks said. He was at USA Network then, and he recalls USA had a banner first quarter because the home of Murder, She Wrote
rerun and movies "was the anti-news."

News networks will continue to do well, though likely not at Fox News Channel's reported 5.0 primetime clip of March 17 to 23. But others will want to turn away. Many viewers will "go back to their favorites or some other kind of programming," Brooks said.

I'm kind of halfway there already, at least at home. I'm dipping away to some favorite shows, but I keep getting pulled back to the war. It's just so amazing to have this "always-on" connection to the middle of the battlefield. CNN's Walter Rodgers aptly called it "truly historic television and journalism" from the Iraqi desert. Much of the step-back coverage — analysis, commentary, photo montages — has really improved since the bang-bang started, too.

The difference between us and the combatants and civilians living through it, of course, is: We can change the channel.

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