Column: In war, medium is still the message

The military is not the only technologically superior force sweeping through the Iraqi desert surging toward Baghdad. Embedded journalists are almost as potent in the war on terrorism as the smart bomb. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan said, is the message.

The way the current war is covered is important. It will essentially write the record of the war until new evidence and time can reinterpret the events as history. The handling and success of the war will also influence how the country votes in the next election and the direction our nation goes for many years.

Thus far the war coverage has been compelling. So much so that students sit down with popcorn to watch the war, eagerly flicking channels between the networks hoping to catch breaking news, new footage and updated body counts. Perhaps we are suffering from a perverse realization that we have inherited the lust for Romans’ bread and circus.

This fascination is both addictive and frightening. Short of personal contact with soldiers fighting in the war, the media is the only connection Americans have to conflict raging a word away.

While the videophone, breaking news e-mails and satellite up-links represent an immediacy never before imaginable on the front lines of man’s most dangerous social experience, there is also a definite detachment that the coverage has for the viewer.

New footage from Baghdad best exemplifies this detachment. Viewers see the muted flashes of the exploding ordinance over a wide panorama of the city. Cameras are placed on the tops of buildings, not at street level or in the Iraqi shelters. Cruise missiles launch from ships rocketing into the Arabian night. Our entire view of the war is that of action – action without human consequence.

The United States views war with a detachment, both geographically and mentally, from the reality of conflict. The now famous gun or bomb cameras show the destruction of a building from thousands of feet away, essentially nullifying the human impact such weapons have on their targets.

Americans cling to a moral immunity when watching death as a flash of light illuminating the Baghdad sky, while the image of dead American troops is seen as gratuitous.

In past wars the nation has been asked to endure rationing or at the very least called on to donate blood to the Red Cross – not so with the second incarnation of the Gulf War. The most patriotic thing Americans have been called on to do these days is to buy things to support the economy. While it is religiously watched on television, the war has had little personal effect on Americans.

The personalization of the war is chief reason why Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war has proven so compelling for American viewers. There is a desire to know more about the war than CNN can provide.

The decision not to show American deaths has been an easy one for the networks, as none have shown the footage. The desire to see the images, however, has not diminished. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that one Arabic news Web site has received more than 800,000 hits from North American visitors viewing stills from the videos which have not been seen on American sets.

While some 250,000 Americans are fighting in the war, more than three times that many demonstrated in the streets of our major cities last weekend against it. It is more likely that the average person knows a demonstrator than a soldier involved.

The Internet that has brought the war so close to Americans has also enabled the unexpected success of the anti-war movement as a galvanizing organizational tool. Technology is not only tool by which Americans do their work, but also the way they interpret the rest of the world and organize to influence it. Reality television has reached its zenith. Especially in wartime, the media is the message, as the nation is united not by our collective sacrifice, but by our collective attention to those that cover it.

-The writer, a senior majoring in history, is Hatchet metro editor.

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