Flick and Choose

The first remote-control war transformed viewers into editors.


At a little after 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 II 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 accessible 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.

Apparently newspapers and newsmagazines performed a similar role for viewers of Persian Gulf coverage. News stories provided a handy summary of events witnessed by viewers the night before. Many newspapers printed "clip and save" maps of the Middle East, the war zone, and potential war scenarios. Newsweek published pull-out maps and posters of aircraft and other military equipment used by both sides in the conflict. And a host of television critics and columnists provided a running commentary on the quality of news coverage, pointing out successes and failures of news organizations the night before and critiquing the performances of individual reporters and talking heads, from Peter Jennings to Peter Arnett to NBC's Arthur Kent in Saudi Arabia (dubbed the "Scud Stud" by print commentators). The parallel with sports pages—or with TV Guide, in the case of general TV programming—couldn't be more obvious.

A potential drawback to the "viewer as editor" development was that viewers may not be sufficiently informed or motivated to perform their new editorial function. Did they understand the limitations of the coverage they were watching? While the war was still going on, Duke University political scientist David Paletz pointed out that although tens of thousands of bombing runs had been made over Iraq, "there is extensive coverage of a few Scud missile attacks. I don't mean to underestimate the importance of what it's like to be bombarded, but compared to what's been dropped on Iraq, the drops on Israel have been minimal."

The coverage was indeed skewed by the location of reporters and the impact of military restrictions. But the bombs that led a terrified Bernard Shaw to take cover under his bed—and to report the act live on CNN—were, of course, falling from allied planes. And reporters on several networks broadcast interviews with refugees fleeing into Jordan, whose stories viewers undoubtedly found more credible than anything coming out of official Baghdad. Plus, the live briefings concentrated primarily on allied bombing runs, not Iraqi Scud attacks. Indeed, the military briefers tended to downplay the importance of the Scud launches, pointing up the journalists' tendency to exaggerate the significance of the drama they could capture on tape.

It has become a cliché that modem news consumers, lulled by television into a passive complacency, do not have the ability to evaluate or challenge what they are spoon-fed by blow-dried anchors. And broadcast news does indeed differ qualitatively from print, since readers can select which stories or parts of stories to read while viewers must watch a set series of stories. Reading takes more effort and more independent judgment than watching TV news.

Or at least it used to. Armed with remote controls and numerous cable channels, viewers can now act as readers and chart their own course through the daily news. Has this resulted in increased viewer sophistication and self-education? In the Times-Mirror poll, 50 percent of respondents said they could not stop watching news about the war. They had become news addicts.

Furthermore, while some media critics worried that censored reports from Baghdad would be viewed too uncritically by Americans, poll respondents who had viewed the reports—such as Peter Arnett's story about the bombing of a supposed baby milk factory—remained overwhelmingly favorable about the war effort. And the respondents split almost evenly on the question of whether Arnett's and other Iraqi-censored reports should be broadcast, with 43 percent favoring such broadcasts and 45 percent opposing them (a later Newsweek poll found a large majority—69 percent—favoring the broadcast of censored reports from Baghdad). In short, Americans seem perfectly capable of understanding the circumstances under which news reports were produced and of judging their veracity.

A more significant implication of the new media technologies was that the same live coverage that made viewers become editors also made the time lag and security-conscious editing of previous war coverage obsolete. Using portable satellite uplinks, journalists reporting live from the gulf could compromise operational security or give the Iraqis information they might otherwise not have had (policing coverage on these grounds is one role viewers can't really take over from editors, since by the time raw coverage reaches viewers, it also reaches the enemy). This consideration was at least the primary stated reason that the press corps in the gulf were tightly controlled by American and other military authorities.

Coverage of the earliest Scud attacks on Israel seemed to bear out this fear, as befuddled correspondents, fumbling for their gas masks during live broadcasts, reported the location of Scud landings to the world—including the Iraqis. While the Scuds' inherent inaccuracy made reports by journalist spotters useless, other weapons systems the Iraqis might have employed could have been adjusted after media reports, to greater military effect.

Or, Iraqi generals watching the Weather Channel might very well have gained more accurate information about battlefield conditions than was available to them from their own sources. In the Gulf War, Iraqi incompetence made these considerations irrelevant, but future adversaries may not be so hapless. Undoubtedly a more satisfactory and less restrictive method than the pool system—one that accommodates both security interests and the demands of modem journalism—will have to be developed.

Some would prefer to go back to the old system of carefully edited, delayed reporting. Testifying before a congressional panel on press restrictions in late February, former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite warned of the danger. "It would be helpful if all sides agreed that live battlefield coverage is not an issue," he said. "The promise of such coverage was nothing but science fiction, despite our early experience of seeing Baghdad, Tel Aviv, and Dhahran under attack, live in our living rooms. But it simply can't be. Imagine the Iraqi commander monitoring American troop movements via CNN."

Cronkite's point was that the military should have abandoned the restrictive pool system, which limited press access to troops, and battlefields, and instead concentrated its efforts on censoring reports and accrediting a reasonably large number of reporters. Cronkite even urged an end to live briefings from the Pentagon and Riyadh, preferring only off-camera, informal talks with journalists. Since briefers knew the Iraqis were watching, he reasoned, the military wouldn't say anything interesting on camera. This rationale for letting journalists, not viewers, determine what is interesting and important falls short. Military sources know equally well that anything they say off camera that is interesting enough to get reported will also become known to the enemy. And Cronkite underestimates viewers' demand for immediate information.

Despite its drawbacks, America's first experience with remote control war must be described as a tactical, if not strategic, success. Viewers had unprecedented access to all sorts of coverage of the war from all sides and perspectives (despite the claims of conservative and liberal critics), allowing them to develop informed opinions.

Fears about Americans' vulnerability to misleading reporting or enemy propaganda remained only fears, unfulfilled in practice, while modem technology, often maligned as a disruptive or dangerous development, again fulfilled its promise of giving ordinary consumers more and more power over services rendered. Serving as their own editors, American viewers had to think for themselves and choose among varied and sometimes confusing alternatives. But a free society recognizes no better judge of truth.

Contributing Editor John Hood is publications and research director for the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.