The view through the eyepiece of a gas mask provides an unnerving clarity. It was early morning and we were standing on the roof of the Sheraton in Kuwait City in the middle of a live broadcast.
Suddenly the air raid sirens began their long, hooting wail. An Iraqi missile was our way. It was only a day or two into the war, and there was, we thought, the possibility that the warhead might contain chemical or biological agents.
The correspondent was live on the air. He, like the rest of us, hurriedly slipped on his gas mask and continued his broadcast. It was a frightening moment but soon the All Clear sounded and we could take our masks off.
A few hours later, someone on the satellite desk back in the States called and requested the correspondent to do another live shot. “Can you wear the gas mask again?” she asked. “It looked really great this morning.”
The correspondent refused. “I’ll only put it on if the siren goes off, and it’s a real situation,” he told her. I respected his judgment, and courage in refusing. Nonetheless, the request shocked us. It was an example of the sort of pressures that journalists doing live television are being put under all the time.
Live TV is the ultimate example of how the medium has become the message. Of course, when something like September 11 occurs nothing can equal the power of live television to show people around the world what is happening. In times like that, the power of television truly is a mirror of our reality. It provides us with an unforgettable link to the times we live in.
But all too often live television is nothing more than an illusion of reality — and, as the request to wear a gas mask revealed, it can be little more than a series of carefully crafted fakes.
Live television exists in an informational Bermuda Triangle, trapped between technology, money and the human attention span.
Of course, ever since the days of the first war photographer Roger Fenton, technology and truth have been found to be at odds with one another. His carefully posed photographs of the Crimean War showed a decorous Victorian adventure that had little to do with the brutal results of cannonades and musket fire.
But standing on a hotel roof miles away from the front lines is no more real, or “live”, than those faded sepia photographs. And today, with 24-hour news, there is the added pressure to keep this illusion going, hour after hour. Long after there is no more information to pass on, the machine of live television keeps churning.
The technology itself has become more important than the information. Much of the time we broadcast only because the machines are there, and they can transmit – not because we have anything worth saying.
In Kuwait the machines kept going all night. At three or four in the morning the roof was still crammed with blazing lights and journalists and technicians anxiously feeding the beast, worried for their jobs and their careers if by any miscalculation they might fail to keep transmitting.
I could not help thinking of William Blake and “his dark satanic mills” destroying the social fabric of 18th century English life and polluting the air with their smoke stacks.
This is a new danger for our 21st century — information pollution, the toxic overload of useless, often inaccurate information.
The best that can be said for much live television is that it is radio with (usually) fuzzy pictures. At worst — and this is frequently the case — it is nothing more than hearsay. This is where money comes in.
Classical television journalism, where you go out and witness and record something that is really happening, and then edit the pictures into a narrative that makes some form of sense, is expensive to make.
You cannot keep the machines transmitting round the clock on that sort of budget. You cannot have journalists and cameramen going out and filming things too often, because you can’t afford it 24 hours a day.
Instead you are forced to use what we jokingly call the “gob-on-a-stick” approach to journalism. You shove someone in front of a camera and tell him to regurgitate the wire services as best he can. And to keep on doing so for as long as he can stand.
“Dish monkeys” is the self-imposed industry term for those of us unlucky enough to get trapped next to the performing circus of our satellite dishes. They seldom, if ever, get off the roof to see anything, or to talk to anyone for themselves.
Of necessity, they are forced to break one of the fundamental tenets of journalism almost every time they appear on the screen — you never report something you have not confirmed for yourself.
“What are your sources?” is the traditional harangue of a good editor. In live television, you have no idea. All you have to do is to keep talking, trying to remember on air what the wire service reports said. And you don’t know where that information came from.
And — yes, you guessed it — sometimes the wire services base their reports on what they’ve just seen on television. Of course, it’s not always as bad as this, but all too often, the airwaves are filled with layer upon layer of half-truths and guesswork circling each other like the snake that swallows its own tail.
The journalists who work in live television are trapped in an hourly, ongoing dilemma. It’s no wonder that the audience becomes bored with the endless repetition of unfounded speculation and sequences of badly-shot pictures they are bombarded with. Control of the airwaves by governments, and the “manufactured consensus” that Noam Chomsky talks about, are real enough concerns.
But there is another, amorphous, and equally insidious Big Brother – that of the vast, growing audience and its desire and its power to know, and see, more and more. They can, and do, switch off with the push of a button. We live in a post-Orwellian age.
At times we are lucky enough to have a real story to tell. Many times, though, we have to keep the machine going anyway we can, keeping you watching, hoping you don’t push that button and consign us to the click and darkening hiss of oblivion.
Hamilton Wende is a freelance author and television producer. He has covered some 15 different conflicts around the world, including South Africa’s transition to democracy. Most recently he covered the war in Iraq. His latest book “Deadlines From the Edge” is published by Penguin SA.