The Shock and Awe Show

The Media-Military Complex Presents a New Genre: Hyper-Reality TV

Reality TV is an illusion created by artful editing. Everything that seems actual has been distilled into high drama. The jiggle of the handheld camera makes the mirage even more lifelike. The same is true of war in low-res. Tanks race through the desert in a beige haze. Time and space collapse as we move in a flash from aircraft carrier to exploding palace, from the home front to Qatar. This preternatural state relaxes as it arouses. We know we won't be assaulted with sights too shocking to bear. No one will hear our hearts pound in private. Such safe and secret stimulation is the joy of voyeurism. By providing a steady stream of anodyne imagery, the government can go a long way toward turning war into a guilty pleasure. By embedding war in a popular TV genre, the networks do their part to make it bearable.

But combat has a way of violating the rules of the reality game. As high tech gives way to flesh-and-blood fighting, the cameras will have to confront the corpses—either that or the pageant will look like the fake it is. When the agony becomes unavoidable, who knows how the intimacy of this coverage will play to the open eye? The low-res aesthetic has yet to reveal its true impact. The dreamlike trance it promotes could be a new basis for empathy.

Walking home last Friday after watching Op-Iraq in every store and restaurant, I was caught in a serious rainstorm. As lightning flashed and thunder roared, I felt a jolt of something approaching horror. Before it passed and reason prevailed, I was forced to calculate the distance between New York and Baghdad. It may not always be so great. Someday it could be me fleeing from catastrophe while sat-phones beam my agony to a distant population. I don't think I would have conjured up this fantasy if I hadn't spent the better part of two nights and days in the magic kingdom of shock and awe.

So get ready for your close-up, Mr. President. There are unintended consequences to hyper-reality TV.

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