There was another tense, chaotic morning of wailing sirens and false alarms Saturday in Israel. So, from CNN’s studios in Atlanta came this question on the air to correspondent Richard Blystone in Jerusalem:
“What don’t we know and when will we know it?”
A better question: What don’t they know and when will they report it?
Along with incredible benefits, television’s hair-trigger instantaneous reporting on the Persian Gulf conflict has yielded incredible confusion and misinformation. Part of that is because of difficulty in gaining access to facts, part because of the nature of TV.
Thanks to TV’s technology, epic breaking stories such as the gulf war no longer evolve in the traditional way. That’s because the process of reporting the story has become the story, taking on a news life of its own.
In many cases, what television learns is immediately passed on, almost as if information--or rumor--moves from ear to mouth, bypassing the brain. At any given point, you can tune in gulf coverage and hear something that conflicts with what you heard a half-hour before.
Thus, if a single paragraph could epitomize the foibles of the week’s gulf coverage on TV, this would be it:
Iraq’s chemical attack on Israel will surely prompt retaliation by Israel, which won’t retaliate because the Iraqi missiles did not have chemical warheads, although they did, unless they didn’t, in which case the Israelis will not retaliate, unless they do. Meanwhile, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia , is being hit by Iraqi missiles, unless it’s an attack by Iraqi terrorists who have been spotted where they haven’t been spotted, but may soon be spotted before we go off the air, at which time we’ll tell you about it, unless we don’t know anything, at which time we will tell you about it anyway. Meanwhile, Israeli planes have been spotted over either Iraq or Iowa. Of this we’re certain . . . maybe.
Well, what’s to worry? If the reporting process itself is the story, as the rationale goes, then it’s unimportant that a few errors are made while the story is being gathered.
Live reporting--when a gimmick to seduce and sucker viewers or when stories are perilously rushed on the air merely to beat the competition--has been one of the uglier warts on the TV news landscape for years. One night last week, for example, local stations rushed their reporters to March Air Force Base near Riverside, reporting live during their late-night newscasts that a suspected “Iraqi terrorist” was seen driving up to the base. Very dramatic. Very scary.
As it turned out, the “terrorist” was later apprehended in San Francisco on a bomb charge, with police saying they had no evidence he was involved in terrorism and discounting stories that he had appeared at two Southern California military installations. Still later, bomb charges against the man were dropped.
Even when going live is absolutely essential--as in the gulf war--the risks hardly diminish.
If TV’s gulf reporting has affirmed anything, it’s that the gap separating news and reporting of news--the pause that’s needed to double-check and evaluate--has not only drastically narrowed but in some cases has been completely erased.
Erroneous reports--first by NBC and then by ABC--that Iraq had used chemical warheads in its initial missile attack on Israel were excusable, if unfortunate. Allowances have to be made for journalists reporting stories live through gas masks while worrying about their own survival.
Yet those gaffes--and the speculative-style reporting that has characterized some of the TV coverage since--are warning signals that need to be heeded. As ABC, CBS and NBC seek to steal some glory back from CNN--and CNN attempts to justify its deserved acclaim--the pressure to be on the air first with the most only increases.
And so does the danger.