Surreality goes to Baghdad

It’s the media event of the new millennium, a spiffy little preemptive annihilation of the Dark Side of the Force

Tired of whining, skinny chicks with pierced bellies and firm thighs competing to swim across a river without using their arms? Eating a dozen mealworms? Singing a slick Shania Twain cover? Winning the affections of a fake rich guy or a handsome megalomaniac?

Of course you’re not. Sick of the firm-thighed chicks, that is.

But you may find yourself getting bored by endless repetitive endless repetitive endless repetitive analysis of why Evan chose Zora over Sarah over Kelly Osbourne or whether Simon will sign on for another season or what kind of psychological damage might be inflicted on couples who are Married by America.

It’s no wonder we’re hot to trot for the latest splendiferous reality TV extravaganza. That’s what I think about when media folk start debating the nation’s “stomach” for a war in Iraq.

Some Americans anticipate an ass-kicking in Iraq much as if it were the latest Vin Diesel action extravaganza. And why not? Can’t be worse than watching some guy named Nick placed in a coffin with large rats in order to win Big Prizes. Besides, we’re going to win. Right?

Most people view the news as a form of entertainment, says Donica Mensing, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“The lines between ‘reality’ and ‘make-believe’ have blurred into a great big fuzzy gray mass,” Mensing says. She talks of a researcher at the University of Minnesota who’s developing video games to be used for telling news stories online.

“I think it’s a very interesting idea—figuring out how to use the technology to tell more compelling stories—but it certainly relates to this idea of ‘mediating’ reality as if it were a game.”

Media mogul Joe “Millionaire”

Pulitzer once said, “I rather like the idea of war—not a big one—but one that will arouse interest and give me a chance to gauge the reflex in our circulation figures.”

He was talking about the Spanish-American War back in 1898, arguably the first media-generated war finagled by the king of yellow journalists, William Randolph Hearst. While Pulitzer knew journalism was really all about entertainment, Hearst acted on the knowledge with vim, vigor and a zest for MSU (Make Stuff Up) reporting. The lofty idea that capital-N “News” was intended as a means to an informed citizenry? Leave that to stodgier papers like the New York Times.

Hearst and Pulitzer knew what Americans really wanted—even in the late 1800s. Salacious, greasy, bloody, gossipy, naughty stuff. The 19th-century equivalents of JonBenet, Michael Jackson, Monica and the cigar. The yellow journalists wrote passionate stories—some were even partly true—with headlines “that read like the titles of Gothic novels,” writes Neal Gabler in Life: The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

“Promoting the genre of self-indulgence, the newspaper may have been the single most popular form of entertainment prior to the movies,” Gabler writes.

Fast forward to now. Surreal Life. Survivor: Amazon. The Amazing Race.

Have you heard about the Sci-Fi Channel’s lawsuit-provoking Scare Tactics show? A woman is suing the makers of Scare Tactics after undercover show personnel lured her and three friends onto a dark desert highway. After a costumed “alien” faux-murdered two friends who were in on the fun, cameras filmed the panicked woman and the fourth friend as they fled into the dark desert.

Ha-ha, you pants-wetting suckers. You’re on Candid Camera.

The woman was pissed. Her lawyers say the makers of the reality TV show had gone too far. They’re suing to prevent the further “unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business practice of surreptitiously recording the traumatized reactions of any other persons in the future.”

Speaking of costumed aliens and staged reality, I read about the Raelians’ anti-war protest in Los Angeles on Saturday. You remember the Raelians, right? Headlines galore! Those are the folks who say they’ve cloned a human, who believe life on Earth was created by space aliens and who urge people to imagine Saddam Hussein nude. Four Raelians reportedly stripped to their thongs. Police reportedly didn’t arrest them. Now that’s entertainment.

Anti-war protests, though,

haven’t stopped military forces from gathering in the Middle East. And nothing can stop the media from capturing it all on digital video.

Keith Garvin, a UNR alum who’s now an ABC Eyewitness News reporter, writes “Dispatches from Kuwait” for the UNR webzine, the Zephyr ( He tells of the good-natured American military folk he’s met in Kuwait.

“Most of the men appear to be in good spirits and are exhibiting high morale, but underneath you can see a serious and quiet resolve to do their jobs if called upon, then return home safely.”

Garvin also describes the media gathering in Kuwait: “This war will be different for the American public, because they’ll see it like no other war before. Crews … are being embedded with troops for the first time since Vietnam. But what will be different this time around is most of us TV and radio folks have the equipment to broadcast live from the battlefield. So rather than just seeing missiles land on Baghdad, viewers will be able to see them launched by American forces in the desert.”

Sounds like a hit program already.

Mensing says she wonders what will happen if the show’s plot starts to turn.

“What is going to happen when all these embedded journalists show the American missiles taking off?” she asks. “And then, if we haven’t blown Baghdad completely off the map in the first hour, some of our soldiers might actually get hurt. Real blood. Tears. Scared 18-year-olds. Torn limbs. Are they really going to show that too? And how can they stop it, once the cameras have been allowed to film the glory of American military technology?”

She’s heard the hopes expressed by military personnel who say they’re going in to do a job they’re prepared to do. Then they’re coming home.

“Maybe it will be that easy, but I find it very hard to believe," Mensing says. "It does feel like a movie—a really, really bad movie where you know the heroes are being set up for a disaster. I always close my eyes at this point in a movie … and I wish I could do the same right now."