Wars on television are an extraordinary phenomenon. Here we find small samples of reality grabbed by camera crews deep in the deadly heart of battle.
The Gaza campaign, merely the most recent in the non-stop military conflagration of the Middle East, differs on television in two major ways from its predecessors.
First, and in this case unlike the Syrian disaster and its attendant horrors in what used to be Iraq, Gaza has no shortage of well-informed and well-equipped television crews on both sides of the border. This has meant high-quality images all bathed in the bright sunlight of a Mediterranean summer. Explosions are documented in perfectly exposed shots, their composition conforming to all the standard aesthetics of formal television production.
Syria, now in its third year of civilian massacre and population displacement, has had to rely on wobbly hand-held video, usually shot on smartphones and disseminated via YouTube. These murky impressionist videos, short because of the terrible danger in their capture, are hard to contextualise and often come with a disclaimer from the broadcaster. Their virtue, their great virtue, lies in their contribution to citizen journalism, itself just one of the many benefits of the digital revolution.
Second, commentary – inevitably partisan since this is total warfare – is quickly distributed by official public relations officers from both sides. For this reviewer, these unambiguous ideological statements have greater content, less opacity and more succinct delivery than the stuff provided by the talking heads of the various 24-hour news channels. My God, how they do maunder on and on, making it up as they go along, their personal ideologies unfocused, their facts with a shelf life of 40 seconds.
Shifting from the reality of war reporting to the reality of reality television brings us once again to Jerry Springer and his polite and richer doppelgänger, Oprah. For there is no doubt in the minds of reasonable men and women that these shows attempt to deal with the same issues, all of which are fragments of individual discontent, social dislocation and profound dismay. Informing their productions is the American tent crusade invention of endless testimony, in which sinners confess to their nefarious ways and vow to change to strategies of enlightenment and gentle humanity.
Springer, urbane and amusing, plays ringmaster to the circus events that occur in front of his cameras. Oprah, that secular saint, philanthropist and lady magus, spreads the organic peanut butter of New Age emotions over her guests and audiences.
Both make their points, Springer with greater vigour and psychological insight. And both of them produce shows that keep their massive audiences alive, focused and aware at all times.
Part of Springer’s genius is his capacity to select participants whose identities are not widely known.
These are the under-educated, financially stressed and emotionally ravaged occupants of the least successful stratum of American society. Most of them just want to take off their clothes and cage-fight with their former lovers while sharing salty analyses of their opponents’ lifestyle choices with the audience at large.
In contrast, all is love and peace in Oprahland, with the studio audience usually sedated by large gifts and goody bags. As the wide awake Springer knows, it’s the extreme case that proves the rule. So sad really that with all his dramatic raw material the language is often censored. This is most curious. Somehow it’s just fine to witness failed lap dancers pull each other’s hair out, but God forbid we should actually hear what they are saying while they do so.
This column first appeared in the 10 August 2014 issue of the Sunday Tribune SMtv