The United States has not embarked on a military adventure in the Middle East to make the world safe for the commercial interests of ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. But these great corporations are not reluctant to exploit the situation in their private wars for audience, advertisers and profits. Dan Rather, outfitted for safari and armed with a multimillion-dollar expense account, flits from one desert capital to another in search of scoops and rating points. On a similar mission, Sam Donaldson, blow-dried and righteous, broadcasts from the Saudi Arabian wastes, dissatisfied as always -- as he tells us on camera -- with the niggling restrictions under which he must labor. Other luminaries from the network news departments -- Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Bryant Gumbel -- have made the Gulf pilgrimage, either as a show of initiative or out of competitive necessity.
Their journalistic and academic credentials in Middle Eastern affairs and in desert warfare range from modest to nonexistent. But they are the celebrities and showmen around whom the networks build their news operations and on whom they depend to attract the vast audiences that attract the advertisers and their dollars. It is possible that the public is unaware of the commercial burdens these men and women bear and is largely unaware, too, of the self-imposed handicaps under which the network news organizations function. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek got it right last week: "Instead of investing in long-term coverage of a region . . . the networks . . . all but ignore whole areas of the world until a crisis erupts. Then they parachute in the big-name talent."
Mr. Alter referred to another network difficulty: "The real problem with the Gulf story is that the pictures stink. A little 'bang bang,' to use the industry vernacular, would change that in a hurry -- assuming, of course, anyone would be allowed to cover it."
"Bang-bang," we should all understand, is not a children's game; it is one of the "media" euphemisms for war, an activity in which the deliberate mutilation and death of hundreds or thousands or millions of people is a necessary byproduct. It fascinates distant spectators. It makes for "terrific television," and it sells, as the commercial success of the literature and films of war and of fictional violence has demonstrated through much of our history. That is one reason pressures are being exerted on American and Saudi authorities to ensure, as a reporter put it to President Bush the other day, "that Americans will have free, complete and open press coverage of their young men and women abroad."
The fact that professional fame and fortune may flow from wars and disasters is not a 20th century discovery. During and after the great Civil War battles, newspaper sales soared by the hundreds of thousands; hawkers worked the battlefields peddling extras to the troops. William Randolph Hearst claimed credit for the Spanish-American War, which boosted the circulation of his New York Journal to more than a million copies a day. In each subsequent war newspapers and magazines that had never invested a dime in international coverage now clamored to send reporters overseas with "the boys" to satisfy appetites for news. We are seeing that today. And now with television and satellite relays it is technically possible to get war "live" with the evening meal, to glimpse those arms and legs flying, to witness the dying agony of 18- and 19-year-old boys.
What the people require on the eve of war and in wartime itself is not TV anchors flitting here and there or ratings races or even "bang-bang" film. Good reporting will do. Are American forces as incompetent as the "media" informed us in the aftermath of Grenada, et al.? Is the United States -- as the Israelis are reputed to be -- ready to use nuclear weapons? Are the Iraqis capable of effective chemical warfare? Can air power defeat armor and infantry? Should we, as Israelis and their doctrinal allies here insist, use this opportunity, all else aside, to destroy Iraq's military and industrial base? What, specifically, are the reluctant industrial democracies -- Japan and Germany included -- prepared to contribute financially or militarily to this uncertain enterprise? What economic shocks lie ahead?
More attention to such questions won't flutter the rating charts or sell newspapers, but it might focus our minds, clear our heads and better prepare this self-indulgent society for what lies ahead.