How very war-weary we are, and they tell us it's only just beginning. The war with Iraq is not quite a week old, yet perhaps never in history has a nation that was not itself under attack felt so constantly and pervasively the stress of warfare.
Yesterday the tension tightened for viewers with reports of the most devastating Iraqi missile attack yet on Israel, while relations also grew increasingly strained between the media and the military censors of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Then, to give the unreal story one more bizarre twist, representatives of ACT-UP, an AIDS activist group, broke onto the sets of the "CBS Evening News" and public TV's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" while the programs were on the air.
It was believed to be the first time in the 18-year history of the half-hour "CBS Evening News" that the program had been disrupted by a political protest. At 6:30 p.m., when the broadcast began, viewers saw one of the three protesters briefly block the camera's view of anchor Dan Rather, who immediately broke for a commercial so security personnel could remove the activists from the studio.
A CBS spokesman said later that the activists gained entry by using fake CBS identification cards.
After a few seconds of dead air, Rather returned, telling viewers, "Sorry about that. We had a bit of an eruption here in the broadcast. We're going to take things right from the top." A commotion could still be heard in the background as the three demonstrators were being removed.
Later in the program, Rather told viewers, "I want to apologize to you for the way the broadcast came on the air tonight. There were some rude people here. They tried to stage a demonstration. They've been ejected from the studio, but our apologies for the way we began."
CBS News spokesmen said the AIDS activists chanted "Fight AIDS, not Arabs," and were arrested by New York City police.
About 10 minutes earlier, seven ACT-UP activists had surprised anchor Robert MacNeil in the New York studios of "MacNeil/Lehrer" as he waited to interview energy analyst Charles Maxwell. A spokesman for WNET in New York, which co-produces the program, said three demonstrators chained themselves to MacNeil's desk and one tried, unsuccessfully, to chain himself to MacNeil.
On the air from Washington, co-anchor James Lehrer told viewers, "There has been a demonstration in our studio in New York," to explain why there had been no sign of Maxwell or MacNeil for several minutes.
When the demonstrators were removed from the studio, MacNeil returned, telling Lehrer and the audience, "It was a group of people who call themselves nonviolent demonstrators from the ACT-UP AIDS group who complained that we in the media are spending too much time and attention on the war in the Middle East, that they will never kill as many people as are dying of AIDS."
Both Rather and MacNeil remained outwardly calm during the disruptions. A spokesman for NBC said ACT-UP members tried to gain access to NBC News studios in Rockefeller Center but were stopped by security guards. Although ABC's "World News Tonight" is the top-rated evening newscast, a network spokesman said there had been no sign of demonstrators there.
Victor Mendolia, a spokesman for the ACT-UP group, said the protests were mounted "independently" but that the protesters were ACT-UP members and "we support what they did." Told that Rather had called the demonstrators rude, Mendolia responded, "Well, ACT-UP is rude."
Mendolia also charged that the demonstrators were "roughed up quite a bit, and this was a nonviolent act."
NBC News was having problems of another kind, and they were indicative of increasing friction between journalists and official news sources. Israeli censors were upset by an afternoon telephone report from Martin Fletcher on the latest Iraqi missile attack on Tel Aviv. The censors felt Fletcher should not have given out early casualty figures and, a network spokesman said, "shut down our satellite" as punishment.
By 7 p.m., however, after about five hours of down time, NBC's uplink out of Tel Aviv was reestablished. Fletcher had written a letter of apology to the Israeli ministry of information, saying his breach of security had been "unknowing," and anchor Tom Brokaw took the unusual step of apologizing to Israel at the start of last night's "NBC Nightly News."
CNN viewers saw many of the day's dispatches from the war zone labeled with disclaimers: "Cleared by Israeli Military Censors," "Cleared by Saudi Military Censors," "Cleared by U.S. Military Censors." There seemed to be little war footage that hadn't been cleared by a censor from somewhere.
Even live reports by CNN's Richard Roth in Tel Aviv carried the "Cleared by Israeli Censors" tag. How could a censor clear a live report? CNN News Director Ed Turner said from Atlanta that there are Israeli censors on 24-hour duty at CNN facilities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem watching over everything that CNN puts out.
"They have pulled the switch and shut us off when a shot was not acceptable to them," Turner said. "I am very sympathetic to their problems, and yet we're trying to cover the story as best we can. We'll do whatever we can within reason to live within their guidelines."
Saudi censors in Riyadh have imposed the same kinds of restrictions, Turner said -- among them, severe limitations on how much can be shown during a missile attack. The camera must avoid shots of the skyline or known landmarks that might help the Iraqis gauge the effectiveness and aim of their missiles. All the footage has to be reviewed before it can be aired.
CNN is probably subject to more intense scrutiny by the censors than any other network, largely because the CNN signal is available throughout the Mideast. Saddam Hussein himself may well be watching.
There were breaches of taste as well as of security in yesterday's coverage. Over dramatic, bloody footage of injured Israelis being rescued in Tel Aviv, CNN had the dubious judgment to air an audio report from Jan Hopkins at the New York stock exchange about a drop in the Dow Jones average.
CNN's Turner defended the move, saying the drop in the Dow Jones was "directly pegged" to the attack on Tel Aviv, "and to me, that was acceptable."
Networks hate to admit having second thoughts, but perhaps the policy of switching to Saudi Arabia or Israel every time there is a suspected attack should be reviewed. The misinformation given out can unduly alarm and confuse viewers, as when Roth and others reported that a woman had died of a heart attack during the missile shelling yesterday, then reported a few hours later that "she has now been revived, according to officials."
Because of such reports, and the extensive amount of air time the conflict is getting, what's been called television's First Live War may be inducing a kind of early shell shock in those who watch -- a combination of severe depression and helpless disorientation. One feels not so much informed as inundated, overwhelmed and exhausted.
It's true that every viewer does have the choice of not watching. With the advent of cable, most American households now have 20 or 30 channels to choose from, many of which offer old movies or music videos or other diversions that have nothing to do with the war.
And yet many viewers apparently feel drawn back to the war news, especially on nonstop CNN, as if it were a homing beacon, something that cannot be ignored in good conscience. Should we feel guilty if we feel devastated by the war news after only a few days -- when America has fought wars that lasted for years?
Probably not. Nobody saw live reports from bombing sites during World War II, the Korean conflict or Vietnam. This is a new capability for television, and one result is to make it seem as though months of war have been concentrated within a few short days. If it goes on for months, it may feel like years.
Some viewers are already experiencing vicarious battle fatigue. Whatever else this television war does to us, it has already changed the concept of the "home front" forever. The home front and the front lines have never been so close.