Reality TV Goes to War: A Different Kind of Fear Factor


March 16, 2003



Since Vietnam, Americans have grown accustomed to the escalation of war on television. But if Saddam Hussein actually bowed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal that Mr. Hussein appear on Iraqi airwaves and admit he has weapons of mass destruction, his would surely be the first television surrender in history.


And quite fitting: In a post-Clausewitz world, television, not politics, is war by other means.


Mr. Blair's proposal was not exactly novel. At the urging of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in 1946 the defeated Emperor Hirohito announced to his Japanese subjects that he was not a god.


But the prime minister's insistence on a television apology as a substitute for military defeat has a momentum all its own - the next step in a diplomatic universe where even the most delicate matters of international security are conducted in front of television cameras.


Mr. Blair may not have expected the Iraqi leader to agree. After he announced the six punitive conditions under which Mr. Hussein could avert military attack last week, France rejected them before Mr. Hussein had a chance to do the same.


But the prime minister did tap into our culture's appetite for televised denouements, creating, in effect, the prospect of a reality show for third world tyrants, a Nuclear Fear Factor.


If Mr. Hussein were willing to go on camera and humiliate himself in the eyes of his people and the world, Iraq would be spared war, Mr. Hussein could save his life, and Western viewers would have the instant gratification of seeing an enemy recant. (Though there is always the danger that, like a hostage reciting his captors' words under duress, Mr. Hussein could blink out a defiant code message to the



Viewers' expectations of instant, live coverage of war have grown considerably since the Persian Gulf war in 1991. But particularly since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, television has become a powerful way for combatants to wage it. From Osama bin Laden's video threats on the Arabic-language network, Al Jazeera, to the Pentagon briefings serving as a voice-over narration for the images of bombing in Afghanistan, television has been put to military use by both sides.


Video weaponry is so powerful that the White House asked news executives not to show the first videotaped messages from Mr. bin Laden after 9/11. The pretext given was that they might include coded messages to his followers in the West, but the United States government was just as worried about how his propaganda would affect viewers.


Technology has made war more accessible and immediate than ever before, but that does not necessarily mean viewers will see everything that is filmed this time around. If there is a war, news organizations, and particularly television news, will be under pressure from the government

to hold back images of bombing raids and civilian casualties that cast an unflattering light on military action. Access to the front lines has a price: photographers and cameramen placed inside military units on the front lines will have to get their material cleared by the Pentagon, putting such journalistic decisions in the hands of officers.


There will be plenty of camera crews working independently, of course, but the White House is likely to pressure news executives to sanitize their coverage. So far, at least, the administration seems to have concluded that television is too powerful a weapon to leave in the hands of professionals.


Mr. Hussein, of course, is just as keen on the advantages of television warfare. He wanted to resolve the conflict by organizing a television debate between himself and President Bush. He was so insistent on the idea in his interview with Dan Rather of CBS News this month that precious minutes were squandered as he assured Mr. Rather that he was not joking.


Some critics dismissed Mr. Hussein's proposal as a bluff, but it has merits that reach beyond the possibility of victory without military defeat. Recent history has robbed our media-hungry culture of the satisfaction of seeing a defeated enemy on his knees. Throughout his trial for war crimes, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, never once admitted that he led a campaign of genocide in Bosnia in the early 90's; instead he used his television time to jeer at the court and defy the world community.


In other cultures, a pantomime of repentance is a hallowed tradition. In 1992, the king of Thailand quashed a possible civil war between the coup-imposed government and rebels by having the prime minister and the jailed leader of the democracy movement crawl before him on their hands and knees with television cameras rolling.


Peace marchers protesting the administration's threat to use force might consider a new slogan: "make television, not war."






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