Flick and Choose

How TV viewers made sense of the Persian Gulf War.

At a little alter 6:30 p.m. EST on January 16, ABC News correspondent Gary Shepard in Baghdad gave American audiences the first indication that the war against Iraq had begun. In the middle of an interview with “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings, Shepard interrupted Jennings to report that something was happening. Lights were flashing above the city, tracer rounds from Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery which Shepard described as resembling “fireworks on the Fourth of July.” Distant explosions punctuated his narration.

Soon afterward, Cable News Network broke into its regular programming with the news that the air war had begun. Meanwhile, “CBS Evening News” was interviewing a talking head on a different subject entirely. “NBC Nightly News” had taken a break for a soap commercial. First NBC, then CBS, haltingly suggested that the war might have begun. They stayed behind ABC and CNN in breaking stories for the rest of the evening.

In addition to launching what turned out to be the first war in support of President George Bush’s “new world order,” the January 16 allied air strikes over Baghdad also launched the first salvo of a different struggle. If World War I1 was the first “radio war” and Vietnam was the first “television war,” then the Persian Gulf conflict was the first “remote-control war.” Americans had unprecedented choice among and control over television coverage of the war, becoming for the first time not merely viewers but, in a sense, editors.

According to surveys by Nielsen Media Research, only 29 percent of American households with televisions owned remote controls in 1985. By 1990, almost 80 percent did. And by 1990, 56 percent of television-viewing households had cable, giving them access to CNN, C-Span, local network affiliates with their own correspondents in the Gulf, independent superstations, and radio simulcast channels. From 1985 to 1989, the percentage of viewing households with access to 20 or more channels almost doubled-from 35 percent to 60 percent.

And there is evidence that with these new technologies, Americans were already changing their viewing habits before the war broke out. A Roper poll found that in 1979 more than twice as many people turned on their televisions to watch particular programs as turned on their sets to search for programming. By 1989, the ratio between TV “particulars” and TV “wanderers” had dropped to about 50-50, suggesting an interest in shopping around on the part of many viewers, and the willingness to do so.

These changes set up a completely new model for coverage of the Persian Gulf War. Instead of tuning into one trusted network for war coverage, Americans could switch from channel to channel at the flick of a finger. If one network reported a fact or rumor, viewers could quickly check other news organizations for confirmation or repudiation.

During one of the early Scud attacks on Israel, for example, Dan Rather of CBS News reported that “the Israelis are, as we speak, in the process of retaliating against the Iraqis for the six, at least six, Scuds that hit Israel.” Neither the number of Scud attacks nor the retaliation report was true, and CBS recanted the items later that evening. The other networks had treated those reports more skeptically, though ABC had reported that the Scuds had carried chemical weapons-which also turned out to be false.

Viewers could also respond immediately to the changing pace of a particular channel’s news. If NBC News began an in-depth interview with a military expert, public official, or foreign diplomat, viewers could check other channels for breaking news while monitoring the course of NBC’s interview in case a topic of special interest arose. Going into the war coverage, the networks might have thought that viewers had developed specific loyalties to anchors or newscasts, but viewers indicated no such loyalties after the war began. Asked who was doing the best job of reporting war news, one poll’s respondents gave ABC’s Peter Jennings a plurality of 16 percent.

While there are no surveys available at this writing about how many Americans chose to exercise their new control over news viewing, the prospect of facing millions of viewers with short attention spans, few loyalties to networks or personalities, and hearty appetites for breaking news-as well as the technology to act on these inclinations-gave news organizations a different set of incentives and pressures. The live nature of Gulf War coverage ceded to viewers the role performed until recently by news producers, researchers, and executives.

One result was that viewers became less dependent upon news organizations for setting the agenda for coverage. Live daily briefings from the Pentagon and U.S. command headquarters in Saudi Arabia gave viewers an unedited, regular look at the facts and issues of the war, as did coverage of other events by the commentator-less C-Span. Viewers could judge subsequent news reports on a briefing, for example, by their own impressions of the event.

They could also judge the performance of journalists, evaluating both their questions to military briefers and their demeanor at briefings. In a broader sense, viewers watching live coverage of briefings or Scud attacks or other events got a glimpse behind the screen of slickly produced news stories at the journalists at work. In many cases, it was as if viewers were getting, their news not from reading or watching finished stories, but from perusing reporters’ notebooks.

While this new vantage point did not result in a widespread negative opinion of the press, there is evidence that the public came to trust military briefers as much as, if not more than, the television reporters or anchors commenting after each briefing. A Times-Mirror poll released a couple of weeks after the start of the air war found that while 72 percent of Americans believed that news organizations were attempting to deliver an objective picture of the conflict, 78 percent believed that the military was also presenting an honest account. In addition, 57 percent believed that the military should increase its control over reporting on the war-this despite media complaints that the military’s rules were already too restrictive of press freedom.

Another result had to do with the much-vaunted competition between broadcast and print media. In the Times-Mirror poll, 81 percent of Americans said they kept TV or radio tuned into gulf coverage. Earlier polls have found surprisingly large pluralities of respondents saying that television was not only the most a’ccessible source of news but also the most believable.

Print media, however, didn’t become irrelevant. In the same Times-Mirror poll, 51 percent of Americans said they were reading newspapers more closely than before the outbreak of war. Newspaper sales skyrocketed after both the initial Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the outbreak of war on January 16. But print media were performing a different role than in previous conflicts. About three-fourths of Times-Mirror respondents said that newspaper stories were covering pretty much the same ground as TV stories, suggesting that people were reading papers and magazines for reasons other than following the breaking news.

Those reasons might best be understood by considering a parallel with sports coverage. Virtually no one follows the National Football League season solely by reading accounts of games in the sports pages of Monday-morning newspapers. Instead, sports pages provide box scores to summarize games that many readers have watched themselves. They provide, league standings and other statistics to give readers perspective on the week’s activities and to serve as a “viewer’s guide” for future game broadcasts. Sports pages also provide interviews with players, opinion columns by sports watchers, and detailed information about where and when upcoming events will be broadcast.

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