When Going Live Spreads Lies

In the past decade, with the advent of the portable satellite transmitter, media guru Marshall McLuhan's old prophecy of a video-linked global village has become a daily reality in ways that would have astounded McLuhan himself.

I've known this reality at an intellectual level for a long time, but it officially hit home on that Friday night in 1989 when CBS interrupted the season-ending episode of Dallas and cut live to Peking where Dan Rather was in a bunker-like studio hallway arguing with some Chinese bureaucrats who'd come to pull his plug before the shooting started. The bureaucrats won that battle, but they still couldn't hide the massacre that ensued at Tiananmen Square.

The immediacy of a live broadcast like that is what television is made for. America first began to realize this during the weekend after the assassination of President Kennedy, when all three networks went wall-to-wall and America experienced itself as a national community -- in this case a community of grief -- with a new depth and implied kinship.

What changed with the new technology was that TV's live, on-the-scene approach to covering events went global. As a result, since the mid-1980s we've witnessed, live in our living rooms, the People Power revolution in the Philippines; the invasion of Panama; the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the war against Iraq; and, most recently, the attempted coup in the Soviet Union.

Each of these events, in turn, has grabbed the spotlight in a downright faddish fashion, like a really good global mini-series. For a week or so, people talk of little else. Daily life (paced as it is by our TV-viewing habits) is disrupted. We feel, however vicariously, that we are living on the world stage and are somehow a part of dramatic world events.

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