May 2003

by Ron Steinman

On CNN, on MSNBC, even on CNBC, on Fox, occasionally on NBC, CBS and ABC, too many things happen at once on my television screen for me to know what, if anything, is important. We were living with this information overload before the war in Iraq, but now it is worse than ever. This, then, is about the television program the war was in its first four weeks. It is about how show business now dominates news, especially on cable. It is not about how the networks report war from the field.

Television for me has always been about the picture, and what it conveys in combination with words. All pictures work best when allowed to linger just long enough for their information and power to make their mark. That is why the picture had, until recently, a unique status.

In films, whether narrative or non-fiction, because the movement or motion of the images is what that medium is all about, you want the picture to breathe, that is, to have a beat or two before it changes to the next image. In newspapers and magazines and on the Internet, the picture can sit as long as you want while you watch it breathe, thus giving it a life in a context of your own choosing.

Something new happened to television news after 9/11. Information overload became the name of the game. We entered the over-information age. Television news gave up most its standards. Sharp editing died. Broadcasters, though, could not have been more proud of their new offspring. Information became lord of the screen. With that in mind, consider what we now see and hear from watching too much television, something we do especially in times of crisis.

We cannot concentrate on all the information sent our way because of the visual clutter. Perhaps that is what the broadcasters want. The less we concentrate the more they can assault our senses and the more they might hold us before we click our way to the next channel.

First, there is the nerve-wracking crawl across the bottom of the screen that lures your attention from the anchor, and the correspondent. There is line above the crawl that gives you information about the story you are watching. There is usually another line, the third from the bottom, which identifies the network and the title of its coverage. The ever-present identifying “bug” in the lower left or right of the screen is there in case someone steals the coverage, enabling the lawyers to know where it came from if they have to sue. Sometimes we are fortunate to have a fourth line of information that reinforces or repeats everything said by the anchor and the interviewee. Often misspellings abound because the writer or typist is working too fast always to be accurate. I doubt if a copy editor or producer reads the words before they hit air. On CNN and MSNBC, there is the additional annoying, almost subliminal crawl across the screen in the opposite direction from everything else that tells you who or what show you are watching. Above the anchor’s head, you will also see the word, “Live,” and somewhere on top of the pictures, you watch you will see, “Earlier,” and “Baghdad,” or another location. Whew. What do I watch first? What has the most importance? It is hard to know. I know people who turn off the sound so they can in, peace, read the many crawls that fill the screen. This becomes radio without hearing the words, the only way to get coherent, though too little information.

On all the networks, the anchor has a place, perhaps as small as a fifth of the screen, usually in the left-hand corner of the screen. Most of what remains on the screen is a series of pictures from the war, often not related to what anyone says. Worse, when footage in from the field has an interview in close-up, we lose half the face of the interviewee to the assorted junk moving across the screen interdicting the chin, the mouth and sometimes the nose of the subject. That person might as well be a wood post for all the emotion we feel. How much information can the eye and mind absorb? Do I watch and listen to the images first, then listen to the voice through the writing? Should I care about the bylines and the locator graphics that muddle the screen? I want to shout help but I know no one will hear.

Cheerleading anchors dominate the small screen, especially on cable. Their enthusiasm for their organization’s journalism is overzealous, to say the least, and obviously ordered by their managers. They deliver the hype as if handed down from heaven. Does it mean they believe their babble? We may never know. The self-serving hard sell about who is best, who presents the war best, the annoying graphics and the demanding, over-the-top pulsating music try to make you a convert to their network. I understand the need for branding, but it is shameless and beyond sane. Show business wins. The audience loses. Almost to an anchor, their set-up or throw to the correspondent in the field is over the top. Stentorian announcements prevail. Often I feel as though anchors and reporters in fixed positions, not those embedded with the troops, shout over the clamor of their own words. The other night when an anchor reported that hundreds of Iraqi troops died in a battle, he added of the action, “Amazingly good shooting.” He shook his head in awe. It was shocking to hear. I wanted to thank him, glad that he gave me his insight into the war.

I have no problem with the correspondents embedded with the troops. Yes, sometimes they are too excited. At times they have lost perspective, but that is understandable considering the narrow focus they have being stuck with one unit. I know they are tired and overworked. In the end, they deserve all the praise they can get. It will take some time after the war to decide who benefited most from embedding, the public or the Pentagon. Until then, the public, through the dedication of the journalists in the field, is the winner. Without their presence, we would not share the work and hardships of the incredible men and women in our military. After Baghdad fell, some embedded journalists departed their designated units. In a few cases, they shifted to new units.

The Pentagon was unhappy, and probably still is because it means they now lack complete control over every aspect of the reporting. Context, though, is almost dead. It no longer matters how one picture and word fits with another. Storytelling is the victim of immediacy. Sometimes all the networks use raw, unedited footage and by doing that, they and we have entered the world of information disconnection. Coherence is the first casualty of this new reporting. Here the loop comes into play. A loop is simple. It is a piece of video that runs however long you want to make it, repeating the footage, say every thirty seconds. Often you will see those pictures played repeatedly during an interview without a dateline no matter the interview’s subject. This is not only confusing, it is bad journalism.

Despite my negativity, the old networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC sometimes showed their mettle when they had the opportunity to engage in storytelling, pieces about the war that were usually clear and understandable. It started to happen into the fourth week of the war after the march through the desert ended. We witnessed this on magazine shows and regularly scheduled broadcasts. True, there was more time for thought and clarity, but the cable channels, except when doing survey or roundup stories, still resorted to telling you more than you wanted to know without letup. Though the old networks often fell into the same traps as the cable channels, their presentations were usually more lucid and meaningful than those of their stepchildren in cable. In cable, it is all news, all the time, with most of it live, unending and usually breathless. Immediacy beats clarity every time in the rush to generate excitement.

I am looking forward to the next and newest advance in war coverage. It entails two themes from sports broadcasting. One is instant replay so we can watch the same event repeatedly in a variety of speeds. More importantly, there will come the day when a firefight or victory parade has a camera at every angle, much like on a football field during the Super Bowl. That way, with slow motion and instant replay, we will be able to witness war in all its glory and never blink between needed trips to the fridge.

The broadcasters in their arrogance are so sure they are doing right by their audience they may never submit to change. However, that does not mean we should stop badgering them in our effort to make them see the light and to free all those pictures from the tyranny of information overload. One day we might triumph, but do not hold your breath.

© Ron Steinman

Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War


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