Written 130 pm Jan 20, 1991 by hfrederick in cdpmideast.media Los Angeles Times, Saturday,
Written 1:30 pm Jan 20, 1991 by hfrederick in cdp:mideast.media
Los Angeles Times, Saturday, January 19, 1991, p. F1
TV's OTHER BATTLE: SUITS VS. SCREAMERS
TELEVISION: Coverage has given a distorted view of dissent; supporters of
the war appear responsible, the protesters aberrant.
The war wagon rolls on. Thursday's Iraqi missile attack on Israel "makes
this war far more popular," ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts said on
television, summing up the evening. She added that ABC's initial erroneous
reports that some Israelis were being treated for exposure to nerve
gas--even though later corrected--also may have served war supporters,
presumably by further demonization of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Not that the anti-war movement was doing so well on TV even before
Thursday's Iraqi hit on Israel.
Although the Los Angeles Times Poll reported as late as Monday that
Americans were almost evenly divided on attacking or continuing economic
sanctions against Iraq, that tone was largely missing from TV coverage. In
the months preceding this week's bombardment of Iraq, the networks devoted
relatively little time to those opposing the U;S. offensive buildup in the
Although subsequent polls have shown that the number of opponents has
shrunk dramatically since the war of war--"When things are going well,
there's a tendency to be supportive," CBS correspondent Susan Spencer noted
recently--the anti-war crowed is still a significant minority.
Even more than quantity, it's quality of coverage where war opponents have
been severely slighted since the start of the U.S.-led gulf offensive.
Although the reporting has been anything but hysterical, images on the
screen--the suits vs. the screamers--are vivid and lasting. And so are the
messages: Those backing the war act responsibly, sitting hour after hour in
TV studios while calmly discussing military and political strategy and
expressing support for the troops and concern for their welfare. Those
a;gains the war are aberrant, taking to the streets and getting arrested.
Sometimes the words and pictures clash. I a Friday morning report on ABC,
for example, Peter Jennings noted the "diverse" means of protest, peaceful
as well as truculent, being used by war opponents. Yet as he spoke, the
screen was wallpapered mostly by pictures showing confrontation, the last
and most memorable of a policeman dragging a war protester off of a
basketball court by her hair.
In visual-driven TV, it's pictures, not words, that usually have the
biggest impact. When pictures and words are in sync, the impact can be
especially powerful. TV this week has been generous with coverage of
anti-war demonstrations on such college campuses as USC and UCLA and in San
Francisco. A KCAL Channel 9 story on the conflict in the Bay City was
typical: War protesters were "causing a commotion." Cut to a traffic jam,
then an angry motorist, then police in riot gear, then a warning to
protesters to disperse, then arrests, then a brief statement yelled out by
one of the protesters being hauled away, than reaction from a spectator:
"It's poor timing to be out here against the war when our men are dying."
Well, there have been public protests that are sometimes combative, and
there have been arrests. Protest leaders probably know that their
surest--perhaps only--way of getting on TV is through such demonstrations.
For the most part, their perspective hasn't penetrated the tight cocoon of
revolving political, military and terrorist experts talking almost
round-the-clock about the war on TV. Their own "suits"--war opponents whose
specialty is policy instead of protest--have mostly been shut out of these
TV discussion, giving a distorted view of the anti-war movement and no
doubt, contributing to its decline in popularity.
There have been notable exceptions, including some reasoned discussions on
PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," Thursday's 90-minute form on KCET offering a
range of opinion from Americans of Middle Eastern descent and those citizen
call-ins on C-SPAN. Overwhelmingly, though, TV has banished the war debate
to street campuses, echoing the Vietnam era, whose anti-war movement was
part of what a new, three-part PBS series calls the "largest youth rebellion
in American history."
The series, "Making Sense of the Sixties," will air at 9 p.m. Monday
through Wednesday on Channels 28 and 15 (and at 8 p.m. on Channel 24),
unless preempted by live war coverage. It's a valuable, ever-fascinating
primer for understanding the '90s. A former student leader recalls: "There
was a sense we were doing something morally wrong, killing people for no
reason. We were using the incredible American military machine to destroy
There are significant differences in the two wars and their historical and
political underpinnings, so one can carry the Vietnam- Persian Gulf
comparison too far. Not only does footage of these 22- year-old war protests
have a haunting quality that slices through decades, however, but that
earlier angry rhetoric from both sides could be slipped into this week's
anti-war footage without anyone knowing the difference.
Meanwhile, the message conveyed by critics of anti-war protesters
then--that skepticism and rebellion against authority are necessarily
abnormal--is as dangerous today. Yet in 1991, the pervasiveness of TV is
altering not only the coverage of war but also, quite possibly, the goals
and course of war. We watch an Israel resonating with air-raid sirens, see
journalists scramble for safety and hear them give their muffled reports
through gas masks. The pictures and sounds take on a life and dynamic of
There is one theory that, even with the Pentagon's media restrictions
limiting coverage, the longer the war, the larger the protests.
Another is that as the war and terrifying TV pictures we've been seeing
continue--humanizing the specter of chemical attack on civilians--there will
be increased pressure not only to defeat Hussein military, but also to
destroy Iraq itself. If that happens, the gap between the suits and
screamers will be wider still..
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