Shock and awe

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The war in Iraq begins

For weeks the Pentagon promised that the war plan with Iraq would produce "shock and awe" in the Iraqi antagonists. Having set our expectations, the Pentagon confused everyone with an attack on a "target of opportunity" that looked just like the 1991 Gulf war and left us underwhelmed: This is shock and awe? "You'll know it when you see it," they reassured. This article is a few thoughts on the war and how it has been covered on television.

Point of view. Without dismissing the possibility — probability even — that war may have been necessary to disarm Iraq, I am at best an agnostic about this war at this time. I strongly believe that the U.S. has started down a very dangerous path for a lot of wrong reasons and that we have opened a Pandora's box of consequences and implications that will bedevil us for a long time.

Technology

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Wow! A person can't help but be amazed (at least I couldn't) by the communications tour de force on display. From the point of view of someone who had six different cell phones before finding one that would work quasi-reliably, in selected locations, the ability of the television networks to broadcast live from the middle of the desert using mobile cameras, satellite phones, night-vision technology, and so on is truly awesome.

Embeds

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I also have to admire (begrudgingly) the ingenious way that the Pentagon co-opted the press through the program to embed reporters in military units. It's not that this is such an original idea — the example of Ernie Pyle in WW II comes first to mind. What makes it bold and audacious is the real-time communication capability. This essentially made partners out of the press and virtually guaranteed that the launch of the war would be portrayed positively. This mutual back-scratching was acknowledged by David Bloom, NBC, quoted in the New York Times (25-Mar-03).

Branding

Networks' war brands
  • ABC: War With Iraq
  • CBS: America At War
  • CNN: War In Iraq
  • FOX: Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • MSNBC: Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • NBC: Target: Iraq

As is now the custom, each of the networks brands its coverage with taglines and logos. Since this is the Oscar season, I'd like to make some awards:

  • Most non-conforming: CBS, for positioning the war as centering on America, rather than Iraq.
  • Most US-centric: see above
  • Least original: FOX and MSNBC in a tie, for just using the Pentagon's campaign name.
  • Most military-focused: see above
  • Most geographic-focused: CNN, for locating the war without identifying the combatants
  • Most descriptive: ABC, for getting to the point
  • Most honest: NBC, for coming closest to the truth of The Shrub since the day he took office
  • Most concise: see above, for using only two words instead of three

War as sporting event

It was impossible not to notice the parallels between the coverage of the war and coverage of a major sporting event, such as the Super Bowl. On reflection, this isn't surprising: After all, the language of sport draws heavily on the metaphor of war. This just brings the metaphors full circle.

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  • Instant replay: Let's watch that tank explode again
  • Sideline interviews: Let's go now to our correspondent on the ground...
  • Booth: Anchors provide continuity and running commentary on the road to the Super Bowl — er, Baghdad
  • Armchair quarterbacks: Every retired military officer has found a second career as "military analyst"
  • Jargon: The area around Baghdad is now the "red zone"
  • Profiles: Every weapon is profiled
  • Diagrams: Maps illustrate the plays and players in the campaign. You can practically hear John Madden: Pow! Bam!
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Market reaction

After weeks of "geopolitical uncertainty," the stock market responded to the run-up to open hostilities with a robust "war rally." Of course, as soon as the reality of war asserted itself, the market responded with an equally vigorous sell-off.

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Commerce goes on

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Most channels (save the cable news networks) quickly reverted to normal programming and non-stop selling. Ron Popeil must go on, war notwithstanding.


More to come. In subsequent articles, I'll unleash my more caustic inner-self about the rapid deterioration of TV coverage following the first days of the war.