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In Global Village, But Other Side of Town

April 04, 1999|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, is the author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars."

NEW YORK — Television is supposed to have wised us up. Because we scoop up pictures from everywhere, we are supposed to know more truth and it is supposed to help us set other people free. So now, once again, bombs burst on the other side of the world, Pentagon videotape fills the screen, targets are seen to explode in slo-mo and instant replay, the pinched faces of refugees are covered in dust and streaked by tears, the enemy under bombardment declares defiance. Television pours ever more proof of barbarism into our homes, the grim faces of hostages gaze into our eyes and we are no wiser, no clearer, no more helpful than before.

The most enduring of media cliches derives from Marshall McLuhan, who wrote, more than 30 years ago, that TV would unify the world. Thanks to the speed with which pictures moved, we would "live mythically and integrally," freed of limits, freed of provincialism. McLuhan wrote, "Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of 'time' and 'space' and pours upon us incessantly the concerns of all other men . . . . 'Time' has ceased, 'space' has vanished. We now live in a global village."

This most enduring of cliches is the most wishful. As it happened, just as McLuhan was writing, brutal history was proving his judgment premature--to say the least. It turned out the global village was flooded with ignorance, misjudgment and helplessness. For years, pictures and sounds from the Vietnam War poured into American homes without any clear effect.

Vietnam was, as Michael J. Arlen wrote, a "living-room war," but the inescapable images did not drive the public into opposition. The war remained popular throughout the bombing. It remained popular when, in 1965, CBS News broadcast Morley Safer's famous footage of a U.S. Marine torching a hut in the village of Cam Ne. Hundreds of images of firefights, of GI's taking and inflicting casualties, poured into homes; so did images of people with pained faces and scarred bodies, slogging through rice paddies, The war remained popular through 1965, 1966 and 1967. Only after the televised Tet offensive of early 1968 put the lie to military claims that victory was in sight did public opinion turn. Then the war was televisualized as mystery, waste, defeat, an empty ritual of violence.

The longer the war went on, the more Americans disliked it, but there is no reason to think television was the reason. If anything, TV magnified the feeling of inconclusiveness. Support for the Vietnam War slackened at about the rate it slackened during the Korean War--a war neither televised nor actively opposed. More to the point, U.S. casualties rose at about the same rate in both wars, to a similar order of magnitude. In the Korean War, there were about 35,000 U.S. deaths in three years; in Vietnam, about 58,000 U.S. deaths over 10 years. It was the magnitude of U.S.--not Vietnamese--casualties that was the decisive factor.

Television images of the Vietnam War were disheartening, but also disconnected. The war was depicted, mainly, as a difficult mission in which U.S. troops encountered an invisible, implacable, incomprehensible enemy to no great effect. While the military claimed progress, the evidence on TV conveyed stagnation.

No, the global village does not automatically rise to take effective action when it gets bad news from the other side of town. Pictures are no substitute for policy. The horrors of "ethnic cleansing" and the siege of Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities were major news stories in the U.S. and Europe from 1992 onward. Yet during these years, there was no significant public or elite support for substantial intervention in Bosnia. The public wanted those pictures off its screens, but did not want any American boys to die to get them off its screens. All the pictures could not overcome inaction.

Nor did ample reporting from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide bring about any help for the massacred Tutsis, nor increase support for foreign aid, nor for peacekeeping efforts. The political salience was too low, the possibility for politically pleasing action for the home country also too low.

A specific TV effect has been claimed in one recent case: the 1992 U.S. intervention in Somalia. After all, it was only after extensive media coverage of the famine that the issue of what to do came to prominence in the United States. Reporters took up the story and set the agenda for Washington. Then the Bush administration found it convenient to send in the Marines. The truth is that governments resort to what may be called the "CNN rationale"--the cameras made us do it--if it pleases them. When things go wrong, as when 18 American soldiers died in Mogadishu in 1993, and the body of one soldier was dragged through the town, the counterpart alibi kicks in--the cameras made us leave.

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