Resisting the grip of TV war coverage
THE HOMEFRONT (MEDFORD, N.J.) — Tom Ridge told me to buy the wrong kind of tape to prepare for this situation. He said "duct"; he should've said "video." I should've laid in a six-month supply of movies and comfort food to stay mentally healthy. I'm standing as I recite: "My name is Lisa and I'm a war-aholic." Forget CNN Syndrome: I was a multilateral user and abuser of the news and newser - CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CBC, and even the Spanish channel that I don't even understand.
"I'm losing you," my husband said one morning as I sat in front of the computer, squinting at the choppy video of Baghdad. "You have to stop. Go shop or go for a run." Shop? Who needs to shop after stocking the house for Armageddon? Run? I might miss something.
It doesn't get you all at once. You keep it to one or two hits a day of CNN. Then you realize that if you do only that morning TV fix and go about your daily life, you run the risk of returning home to the six o'clock news to find huge and awesome things have happened that you've missed. So you watch and scan and absorb all you can, until one day you learn people from your area have become POWs. Then you're hooked. You can't imagine not knowing every crumb of news.
But then, in one day, I went cold turkey. I'd had a news-heavy day, interspersing the TV with radio. When the kids came home from school, I used the Internet to keep them from the information saturating my brain. The evening was a break. No news, just Legos and reading. Kids asleep, I was just getting ready to turn in when the phone rang and I was ejected from suburban motherhood, smack into the middle of reality TV.
An editor for a large New York City newspaper was ringing with the urgent request for me to drive out to nearby Pennsauken and get an interview with the family of Sgt. James Riley, who was among those American troops taken prisoner in Iraq. Seeing the time - 10:30 p.m. - I thought of the people upon whose door I'd soon be knocking.
Ahh, to be one of the slavering media horde on the doorstep of the grieving. And people think trash collector is a bad job. The program in this kind of assignment is for the reporter to be the "legs" - run out and get the quotes and scenery and then call in by cellphone to a rewrite person who puts the story together.
When I arrived in the neighborhood, I could see the house in sharp relief as TV lights turned night to day. Weaving my way between miles of cables on the grass, around reporters doing their stand-ups in front of cameras, I came to the front steps and the military media "handler." He let me in, and I spoke with the POW's mother, father, and sister, as they waited for their first glimpse of him on the 11 o'clock news. TV cameras flooded in around me like the incoming tide as the moment drew near. One by one the faces of the captives were flashed too briefly across the screen, ending with Sgt. James Riley. Then the local station cut to a shot outside the house we were in as the anchor rattled on about the brave folks inside keeping vigil. In sync with this, the image changed to a live shot of the POW's family looking at the TV. The television audience outside that house was blissfully unaware that what the POW's family was seeing at that moment was themselves, live, on TV - not the full tape of their son, as they'd hoped.
Like a house of mirrors, the moment stood still and surreal. Then the screen flickered to other news. The lights snapped off and the TV people dashed out the door, leaving the room in shock and awe. I spent a few more minutes talking with them and then went outside to phone in my report.
When I returned home, my husband flicked on the tube thinking I'd be hungry for news, but I wasn't. I was full. In fact, I'm suffering from a news hangover of epic proportion that only a few weeks of Disney movies can cure. No action films. No thrillers. Just emperors missing their groove, cars that fly, Eddie Murphy as the occasional donkey.
• Lisa Suhay is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Monitor.