ON MAY 31, 1775, the Georgia Gazette broke the news to its readers that Americans had fought British soldiers in Massachusetts. That news was 42 days old. In the spring of 1814, Americans became completely obsessed with the fate of Napoleon, then trying to return to power. According to a Baltimore paper, attention was "so rivetted on the present act of the great European drama" that it was all anyone could talk about. Trouble was, as Mitchell Stephens describes it in "A History of News," no one here knew what was actually happening, and had no way to find out. At one point, conflicting reports having arrived by ship about who had taken Paris, the news stopped entirely for weeks, "leaving us," complained a New York paper, "in a breathless state of anxiety."

There was riveting news-anxiety last week, too. Millions of people leaned forward in their seats as Cable News Network's Charles Jaco, in the middle of a report about a missile alert in Saudi Arabia, was zapped off their TV screens. For all they knew, they'd watched the man die under a Scud. This vast international audience braced as reporters in Israel pulled gas masks over their faces, perhaps to perish on camera. People flipped channels ceaselessly, even impatiently, to see what was happening, minute to minute, in Baghdad or Tel Aviv or Saudi Arabia, or at least what was going on in hotel rooms and news bureaus in those places. They were in search of "news," which had rapidly come to mean not only facts but astounding things to watch. By the weekend, there were people complaining they were saturated with the ubiquitous gulf war news, with some people leaving their homes to escape the instant televised reports that were otherwise mesmerizing them.

Quite a spectacle, though very different from television's own old fantasies of what its on-location news-future would be. In the '50s and '60s, American shows like "You Are There" and British TV directors such as Peter Watkins (whose "War Game," pseudo-coverage of a nuclear war, won an Oscar in 1966) projected a TV news presence into important events of the past and supposed events of the future; both suggested that TV, once it was technologically free to roam around history-making moments, including wars, would be dispassionate. It isn't, and that fact carries with it some serious implications.

The assumption behind the old speculative shows and films was that on-the-spot television coverage would develop out of the familiar documentary film and newsreel, both powerful but ultimately cool-headed forms that are shaped after the events they report are over. This assumption turns out to be completely wrong-headed. TV news's true ancestry turns out not to be its visual axis with film, but its emotional axis with radio. Confronted with danger and horror, TV reporters, like their radio counterparts of the past (and like print reporters as well), remain people. And while many TV reporters remain cool-headed in the course of their work, in the manner of Edward R. Murrow describing the London blitz, others find it harder to hide or restrain their emotions.

To the degree that a reporter's fear or revulsion become visible, these become part of the story, and may even take it over outright. The most famous example of a radio reporter coming emotionally unglued while describing an event occurred when the Hindenburg exploded and burned in 1937. While the striking newsreel accounts are appropriately somber and dramatic, the radio account by Herbert Morrison is an emotional bath, and is still astonishing to hear. Confessing that he cannot find the words to describe what he is seeing, the extremely agitated Morrison is reduced to wails. "Oh the humanity!" he cries. "And all the folks . . . . This is terrible!" Ultimately, Morrison's emotional reaction overwhelms his report.

A good deal of last week's gulf war coverage was marked by reporters' emotions. Indeed, in the absence of other visuals for much of the time, emotions were virtually the only things to watch: Dan Rather struggling to maintain his composure; a short-tempered Peter Jennings snapping at his guest experts and arguing curtly with his own State Department reporter; Dean Reynolds objecting that his network was reporting information helpful to Iraqi artillery men; the obvious concern of reporters in Israel and Saudi Arabia for their lives. During one of the week's centerpiece reports, CNN's live coverage of the bombing of Baghdad, reporter Peter Arnett remained cool throughout the night, while his fellow reporter John Holliman had a harder time controlling his emotions and Bernard Shaw sounded shaken. Fear under attack is entirely normal, but the result was that their reactions became part of the story, and that viewers were invited to react to these reporters as people, and to the dramatic danger they faced, as much as to their out-the-window reports.

People like Jaco, Holliman, Shaw and the others had, despite themselves, quickly assumed roles quite apart from their reportorial duties. They became surrogate dramatic figures; people whose emotions viewers could come to share, and with whose dangers viewers could identify. Their reports under fire were drama. Not figurative drama. Drama.

Viewers -- except for those whose relatives are serving in the gulf -- were sharing no hardships whatsoever with the people they were seeing. No one last week was being asked to do so much as drive less frequently or turn down the thermostat a notch. The whole event seemed limited to television. That the gulf war was coming across as a dramatic viewer experience -- soon enhanced by interviews with pilots and 30 seconds of impressive aerial bombardment footage -- was most obvious not in the individual reports so much as in the packaging. Never mind the graphics and war jingles that the networks rapidly assembled; when replaying news highlights, some news organizations reran reports that had already proved to be wrong, such as mistaken dispatches about Scud missiles with nerve gas landing in Tel Aviv. There was no journalistic value whatsoever in such replays, but they did allow the audience to re-live the frisson of their earlier excitement.

Television hardly invented the play of news as melodrama. Newspapers wallowed in it until the arrival of TV took the role away from them, and before newspapers were developed, news balladeers and broadsheet writers did precisely the same thing. There is an enormous audience for factual melodrama, and some critics believe that there isn't much else on the news at any time. In fact, that newspapers increasingly lack melodrama, compared to television, may be a reason they are losing readers.

But there's a specific problem with this particular melodrama: It is so large and effective that it gives the impression of being the whole gulf story.

When one sees Charles Jaco appear to have been killed, and then later learns that he has survived his ordeal -- and that moreover no Iraqi missiles had that night reached his part of Saudi Arabia -- one has witnessed a satisfying human drama with a happy ending, both personal and military. Virtually lost amid the relief on his behalf, and the pleasure at the military success implied, is that Jaco and the other reporters at his location are sequestered and being spoon-fed information at the military's pleasure and in the military's interests. Among those interests, of course, is maintaining public support for the war effort. In other words, what television was so successfully dramatizing last week was an official story.

Of course, neither the networks nor CNN sought to do anything of the kind. Such reporters as ABC's Forrest Sawyer in Saudi Arabia have been openly bitter about being prevented from doing their journalistic work. And CNN's own military expert, James Blackwell, observed that "It's important to ask why we don't know what we don't know."

But that TV nonetheless told the government's story with extraordinary effect in the opening days of the conflict was revealed by the government's own efforts to cool what it called public "euphoria." The air war as it was seen on TV seemed, until the first missiles struck Tel Aviv, to be such an easy and satisfying effort that reporters were asking officials if they were going to pause in the bombing to allow Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait right away. President Bush, among others, quickly took to the airwaves to try to undo some of what the government seemed to believe were bloated public expectations.

Governments, even the best of them, are often engaged in what propagandists know as "white propaganda," a form of persuasion in which the source of information is known and the information itself is accurate, but which has a purposeful spin. The president's effort to dampen euphoria may be a first of its kind: a government moving to unpersuade its citizens of its imminent success. The government clearly saw the potential for American casualties, perhaps heavy ones, ahead; a story that promised to be in serious and perhaps demoralizing conflict with the satisfying story the public had embraced. It needed to implant the idea of worse news to come so that should the gulf story become grimmer, popular support doesn't melt away . Finally, opinion polls taken at the end of the week found that many Americans supporting the war effort wanted it to end with Saddam Hussein dead. That may be exactly what George Bush wants too, and it may be exactly the right thing to happen, though the White House's announced war aims, it might be recalled, fall considerably short of that. Killing Saddam has never been part of of the government's sell, the way killing Hitler and Tojo was openly part of its sell in World War II.

But drama has rules of its own, and the desire for catharsis is among them. In this case, the public's desire for a dramatic catharsis and U.S. war aims in the gulf may in fact coincide. The risk in a future confrontation -- in another place, for other aims -- is that the aims of policy and catharsis may not match. It is one thing to try to control the spin on information, quite another to try to control drama.

Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook editor.