CLARENCE PAGE: "Reality TV": That's what we call unscripted shows like "Blind Date" or "Jerry Springer" or "Taxicab Confessions." They employ news values, like documentary filming and sit-down interviews, to create entertainment. They also set the stage for a miniseries: Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war in Iraq, where we saw entertainment values with martial music and animated logos employed to cover the news.
Embedded forever in our memories will be those live firefights, seen through the eerie green of night-vision scopes, the daring nighttime rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch, the air filling the cheeks of the late David Bloom of NBC. The inevitable Hollywood movies about Iraq will have a tough time beating the shock and awe that TV coverage already has made us feel. Here, after all, were the real "Survivors," the real "Fear Factor," live in color and in real-time. And yet, wasn't there something vastly unreal about this TV war?
It was a war remarkably free of blood, or dead bodies or body parts strewn haphazardly on the ground, or the unspeakable fear with which combat soldiers and marines live every day and long night. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi soldiers were killed-- no body counts in this war. And more than 2,000 civilians, but we didn't see many of them.
Americans saw a war edited for TV. Closer to the battlefield action than ever before, TV covered the war like it covers the Super Bowl. While reporters interviewed soldiers and marines on the field, back in the studio, anchors and retired generals fill the quiet time with chatter and analysis. Old soldiers never die, they just give color commentary. In the race for ratings, American news cameras search the landscape for narratives that will grab the attention of viewers and keeping them watching, horrify them, if necessary, but without making them sick or leaving them confused, the way unsanitized war almost certainly would.
We have come a long way since the days of Matthew Brady. His camera was too slow to capture the action of the Civil War, so he recorded the aftermath. His bleak portraits of death at Antietam, bodies strewn like cordwood on the serene country landscape, brought shock and awe to audiences of his day.
If you watched the war on Arab television, you saw a different narrative, laced with blood, broken bodies, and anguished horror. In the eyes of the survivors of our super-precision-guided weapons, you would have seen a mirror image of the American narrative. In the Arab epic, a large country rolls mercilessly over the people of a much smaller one, all but oblivious to the rest of the world that watches like spectators on the sidelines.
Thanks to modern media, we view more close-up action of war than ever before. And yet, war correspondents have told me the closer you are to the action, the less you're able to see. War gives birth to many narratives. TV producers decide which narrative TV is going to tell. (Crowds cheering) The giant statues of Saddam Hussein fell like redwoods, bringing down the final curtain on our Iraqi miniseries, and a brief American moment in the vast history of this ancient land. In the moody crowds, we sense a vast foreshadowing of a long and difficult journey ahead. The reality TV war ends for now; reality continues. (Crowd chanting)
I'm Clarence Page.