THE medium isn't the message. It can beguile us with fiction's laundered, limited drama. It can deliver the world's realities and their meaning. The medium - television - can also present sermons for our consideration. Two televised scenes, juxtaposed, recently raised questions about America's moral responsibilities: Hundreds of thousands of terrified Kurds swarming across the rocky uplands of northwestern Iraq, fleeing the murderous legions of Saddam Hussein.
George Bush, president, playing golf in Florida after telling the press that the United States wasn't going to get involved. In the affairs of the real world, war is both a drama and the instigator of other dramas that flow from it.
Mr. Bush's administration made a grave decision in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait; force, military force, a storm on the desert shores of the Persian Gulf, was the only way to blast Iraq's legions out of the plundered little emirate.
Never have political mandates and battle plans been more brilliantly served than by the American-led allied armies. The 100 hours of combat seemed tailored for an era which, in the first world, anyway, subconsciously equates television drama with reality. The war, seen on TV, took the form of a movie made for that medium; it was short, techno-dazzling, and violent.
Unlike a made-for-television movie, however, the Persian Gulf was not without further implications. The nightmare endured by the Kurds of northern Iraq threatened their lives. It also threatened Mr. Bush's postwar popularity - the highest in our history. The nightly news' pictures of bodies of Kurdish guerrillas lying among the stones and winding, refugee-choked mountain roads thrust new realities into our consciousness.
Such realities qualify American euphoria about victory in the Persian Gulf. They raised complicated questions: If the administration could plan the war with such prophetic brilliance, why was it unable to foretell the postwar consequences? If the president exhorted Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein, was he not obligated to those who tried? How should such moral obligation be weighed against political and diplomatic considerations? Above all, if a great nation triggers an event such as the Persian Gulf war, does it incur some responsibility for the subsequent events that flow from its original action?
Suddenly the 1991 made-for-TV movie had turned into a documentary mini-series. Part Two dealt with the consequences of the Persian Gulf war. It portrayed events taking place far from the America air bases where families and friends cheered returning soldiers.
President Bush and the other leaders of the alliance finally responded to the grisly reality of ``The Persian Gulf - Part Two.'' Airlifts, enclave designs, and dispatch of UN peace-keepers began. Iraq was ordered to ground its Kurd-butchering helicopters.
Television has presented a war tailored to the brittle limitation of showbiz. Then television redeemed itself by showing us, in the cold twilight of Iraq, an old Kurdish woman sitting on the ground, weeping with the abandon of one who has seen her world end.
The medium isn't the message. At its best it delivers messages - to the victors, the spoils that are pride; to the losers, war is hell.