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Magazines > Searcher > May 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 5 — May 2003
Reality Programming
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Communal experiences, the events that we all share so that the sharing itself forms, or at least strengthens, the bonds that underlie the community, have changed over the years. So have the media transmitting them. In World War II, the whole country went to war, but the news from the front arrived at what today's instant news junkies would probably regard as "dissertation-speed." And the news arrived after layers of filtering by censors — both government censors and the self-censorship of journalists with a clear commitment to one side's interests. The narrow focus of the news combined with the widespread interest in the outcome of the event made World War II a highly communal experience.

By the time of the Vietnam war, the medium had changed and so had the message. Journalists could supply pictures — in color — straight into practically every home. You didn't need to wait for the paper boy to deliver the news to which you had subscribed or walk down to the corner drugstore to pick up a newspaper. You could hardly avoid watching the news. Three networks controlled what people watched on television. A nation habituated to eating dinner in front of the Tube would have to stay hungry till 8 p.m. if it didn't want to watch the war. Even local television stations filled the same hours with news broadcasts. Journalists had become more "objective" as the story of the war turned into the story of opposition to the war. The war had much less impact on the daily lives of Americans than World War II, but the flood of television-based news programming made everyone an observer or — as conflict over the conflict grew — a voter. Are you for or against? Is this war a hit or a miss?

As we go to press, the nation has again gone to war and again television delivers the message. News reports appear simultaneous with events. Images of cars driving down freeways that look just like the cars and roads we drive — except for the air raid sirens screaming in the background. Images of office buildings that look just like the ones we work in — except for the fires burning from the craters in their sides. The voices of reporters reporting from the front — and the front is downtown Baghdad. (Imagine some reporter radioing his story from inside Berchtesgaden as Hitler's Reich fell. Or a news bureau offering regular reports from Hanoi throughout the Vietnam conflict.) The news is vivid, immediate, thorough, and "objective," i.e., not necessarily committed to any one side. And if you disagree with the "objective" judgment on general news sources, you can pick an Internet news venue to supply news that matches your views of the war.

But one thing may have changed. For many reasons, this war is much less of a communal experience. An all-volunteer force with no draftees inevitably leaves many American households viewing the conflict as sort of an extended game — like the playoffs. Sympathy with compatriots serving the country at the risk of their lives is undoubtedly high, but — unlike World War II or Vietnam — less of us probably have family or friends in the field. Nor do any of us feel that the conflict could come and take us — or our family and friends — away to join it.

And the news medium itself has changed. With the explosion of cable television channels, anyone interested in the war could watch it around the clock, switching from one 24-hour cable news channel to another. However, a person not interested in the war could watch television round the clock, clutching their remote control, and never know a war was occurring. And the rise of Internet news sources simply multiplies the individual user's ability to design their own reality.

What has seemed to disappear here is the communal experience itself. Or at least nation-sized communities. While many of us view colleagues and friends in listservs or e-mail address books as intimates with whom we share our thoughts and feelings, although we may rarely — or even never — meet them in person, the sense of one-nation-together has become much harder to attain. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps it means that global integration and the new information technologies have begun linking people in a broader array of roles — beyond their citizenship to their professions, their beliefs, their characters.

Still, it's different.

And one wonders how to archive this new mode of history. Gather all the newspapers from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, add some tapes of radio broadcasts, if you can find them, and newsreels, and you have the raw material of the experience of World War II. For Vietnam, you should first find the television news archives for the 1960s and then the newspapers and radio broadcasts. (Forget the newsreels.) Again, such an archive should encompass the immediate experience of that conflict.

But how do you record or archive the biggest news story of 2003? Who keeps all the news produced on the Internet? Information professionals should, but we don't. And, before you could use the material — whether print, broadcast, or online — to re-create the national experience, you would have to find some way to measure patterns of usage. Circulation, ratings, Web site usage patterns — all would become essential in figuring out who saw what. How do you reconstruct the history of an experience where the viewer had relatively absolute control over the flow of information? Talk about reality programming!

Yes, these are different times. Interesting. But different.


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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