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The Networks Have Landed / 16 октября 2007 г.

Ben Macintyre reports from New York on the morning after America’s prime-time invasion of Somalia.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

The invasion of Somalia is under way. Marching into Mogadishu, bawling orders, knocking things down, frightening the locals and buying up people, goods and services, they have finally arrived: the American television networks.

The sociologist Marshall McLuhan pointed out that “television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of our living rooms,” and the arc lights and anchorman have played a pivotal role in every major conflict since. But Operation Restore Hope is quite different. Television is not part of the process, it is the entire process: The decision to send troops to Somalia was born out of the emotive footage of starving people and armed bandits, and the grand humanitarian gesture thus launched will be played out for and in front of the cameras.

“C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,” whatever the Pentagon may try to suggest. Operation Restore Hope is in part a public-relations exercise, co-ordinated between the government, the military and the networks. A full 24 hours before the first troops came ashore in Mogadishu, officials had announced the precise location and timing of the landing — dawn in Somalia, evening prime time in America. The Pentagon had stated that there was no danger of mines, but still three teams of U.S. Navy Seals in camouflage make-up “stormed” onto the beach to clear the way. The Somali “enemy” had long since vanished, and in military terms the dramatic landing was unnecessary, as television it was riveting and as military PR it was a disaster.

The 100 or so waiting cameramen, photographers and journalists quickly surrounded the soldiers, to their discomfort. It is hard to look brave and battle-ready when you arrive to discover that hundreds of civilians have been wandering around the “combat zone” for days.

“Welcome to Somalia,” said a friendly journalist.

“Hands up,” came the furious reply.

The Pentagon immediately tried to insist that the blinding camera lights be switched off, so that the Seals could wear their night-vision goggles to see the Somali warlords who weren’t there. Later, grumpy Marines tried to get their own back by forcing about 60 journalists to lie face down on the dock at Mogadishu port, but the damage had already been done. The U.S. Defense Department, however, made little effort to disguise the fact that the dawn landing had been set up in much the same way as a sporting event.

The television commentators yesterday were plunged into a semantic muddle: Many found the habits of Desert Storm hard to break and called the exercise an invasion, others opted for the more neutral “landing.” None called it what it was, a piece of charity showbusiness that only America could have produced.

Whatever the Pentagon’s protestations, the operation is effectively under the control of American television. Perhaps one day military manoeuvres will be handed over completely to the electronic media: “Sorry, Stormin’ Norman, honey, can you invade again? The sound level wasn’t right.”

A former foreign editor of this newspaper, Ralph Deakin, once remarked that “nothing is news until it has appeared in The Times.” In America nothing is news now until the TV anchormen are there on the scene, philosophizing in flakjackets.

Before the anchormen arrived in Mogadishu, Americans showed a marked lack of interest in Somalia, a story plugged away at by the worthier newspapers but largely ignored elsewhere; that has now changed, for in America there is nothing either good or bad, but television makes it so.

The relationship between America’s newscasters and the viewing public is bizarre and unique. Part oracles, part ambassadors, such luminaries as ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Tom Brokaw and CBS’s Dan Rather do not report the news, they are the news. Well before the marines went in, the New York Times ran a headline announcing: “Now, from Somalia, Three Star Newscasters.”

With obvious delight, those newscasters found themselves in the strange position of reporting on themselves as news. “The most difficulty the Marines had to face all day,” said Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s Nightline, “is having to face the cameras and the lights.” this inelegant remark was not an apology, more a boast.

Indeed, the celebrity of American newscasters has reached the stage where they come close to eclipsing the story itself. The personal appeal by a television newscaster is a powerful tool, as Michael Buerk of the BBC proved with his first, moving reports out of famine-struck Ethiopia.

But in America, such “I-smelled-the-cordite” reporting is a stock-in-trade, every report is a personal one, and it is almost impossible to find the news behind the chummy talking heads.

The evolution of America’s television war-reporters from journalists into stars probably started in Vietnam and has reached its ultimate expression in Somalia. That is partly the fault of the networks themselves, a result of the never-ending television ratings war that elevates personality over substance. But it is also a function of the way the U.S. government has chosen to portray Operation Restore Hope.

Of all the areas of the world rent by civil war and famine, America chose to help Somalia for two reasons: The situation is far less dangerous than, say, a Sudan, Mozambique or Bosnia, and it makes better television. The outgoing Bush administration needed to make a gesture, for the starving people of Somalia certainly, but also to restore hope in America and the Republican Party.

As one media critic said yesterday: “The bottom line is that the heart of every 10-yearold in the country has to beat a little faster when they see the Seals storming ashore.” And for that, the cameras are vital.

But the landing in Mogadishu was rendered farcical because the seams showed too clearly, the cameras were too visible, the scene too obviously staged and the danger virtually non-existent. The soldiers who came ashore were intended to represent America at its most resourceful, daring and generous.

They ended up looking silly because the other half of the equation — the people charged with relaying that image to America and the world — got in the way.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheyney was angry yesterday that the soldiers had, he said, been exposed to danger by the lights of the cameras, but what had really been exposed was the convenient and unspoken pact established between the American government and the media.

What is now taking place in Somalia is not a war, it is not even, primarily, a peace-keeping operation, but something far more mundane and important: a logistical exercise in moving huge quantities of food.

By trying to pretend otherwise, the American government has exposed a creditable, life-saving enterprise to ridicule and shot itself in the foot. After the embarrassment of yesterday’s dawn landing, a Pentagon spokesman observed, “We probably should have inserted the public affairs officer first.” He was not joking.

This story first appeared in The Times of London.

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