by Barbara Quint
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,
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
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is email@example.com.