As the first bombs fell on Baghdad, George Bush was getting his hair done. We know this because a rogue technician broke protocol by beaming a candid image from the Oval Office to the BBC. Millions of people around the world saw the president primping and squirming, his eyes darting to and fro, for a minute and a half before his here-comes-the-war address. The White House was up in arms. “This kind of thing has happened more than once,” fumed a senior aide, vowing that it would never happen again.
It’s evident why Bush’s hairspray moment was taken so seriously. The blooper must have played like a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos dropped into the middle of Monday Night Football. Not only did the president seem vain and prissy; he looked uncertain—a real blow to the mastery that the White House is determined to project. Not to worry: The American networks never picked up the subversive footage. Nothing was allowed to intrude on the spectacle of bombs falling on Baghdad that unfolded before our eyes last Wednesday night.
This was a fateful twist on the famous exchange between William Randolph Hearst and an artist assigned to portray Spanish atrocities in Cuba a century or so ago. “There is no trouble here. There will be no war,” the artist wired the tabloid king, to which Hearst reportedly replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” This time the Pentagon provided both, and the networks processed these high-tech images into a pageant of unprecedented power.
For most people, newspapers are a souvenir of television. So it’s no surprise that even the logo-centric New York Times would publish jumbo four-color photos, as if to freeze-frame last night’s prime-time action. In this story, the only scoop the press can provide is nuance, and war is no time for that. Nor does it matter, except to watchdogs of the right and left, which way the media lean. Print doesn’t shape public opinion, and on TV the content of coverage is not the key to its meaning. The real spin lies in the flow of imagery and its impact on the imagination.
There’s more to the collusion between the networks and the Pentagon than ideology. Both parties have an interest in creating a drama, one that draws viewers into a web of associations, producing thrills, chills, and secret delight. These feelings are heightened by the belief that they convey the real meaning of actual events. The French, those weaselly surrender monkeys, call this confluence of the virtual and the vérité hyper-reality. It’s the grand illusion of our time.
Hyper-reality is a fiction that presents itself as fact. Its power is enhanced by churning Chyrons and rolling ribbons of text. These signifiers of “breaking news” are also a landscape that keeps the eye alert and moving. Meanwhile anchors spin the narrative thread. War wipes the usual smiles from their faces, and they must maintain a tone of reverent gravity however mesmerizing the imagery. But every now and then, a burst from the id lights up the commentary.
“Slam, bam, bye-bye Saddam,” a guest colonel blurted on CNN as the first missiles fell on Baghdad. No doubt many a surround-sound jock had those words on his mind if not his lips. But a Quaker might be unable to resist this invitation to exhilaration. The absence of flesh and blood allowed us to marvel at the impact violence. Bombs burst over the Tigris with the splendor of award-winning cinematography. Satellite maps offered detailed aerial views of targets, placing each of us in a virtual cockpit—every couch potato his own Josh Hartnett.
But we saw all that in Gulf War I. What’s truly new, and memorable, about this sequel is its aura of intimacy. Embedding journalists with the troops has produced its desired effect, creating a feeling of thereness that many an action-movie director would envy. But the insignia of this event is its distinctive low-res look. It resembles early generations of video games but with a far more resonant edge. The visual plane is flattened, the voices of reporters crackle, the image breaks up into pixelated squares. It’s the cubism of postmodern combat. And like cubism, low-res forces the viewer to fill in the semiotic blanks. Gaze at these images long enough and you enter a semi-rational state. Your mind may find it offensive but your senses say sit back and enjoy The Shock and Awe Show.
Back in the ’60s, when TV still seemed like a new medium, Marshall McLuhan wrote that every novel technology draws from familiar forms until it establishes its own aesthetic. The first cars were horseless carriages, the first art photos were modeled on painting, the first TV shows were visualizations of radio. McLuhan would have understood why the look of this war resembles our favorite new genre: reality TV. It has the same voyeuristic kick, the same aura of faintly forbidden intrusion. Now we know what pilots mean when they describe the terrible beauty of bombardment. Now we know what it’s like to face enemy fire. Or do we?
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.