Over three months in the winter of 1991, the eminently fashionable French Theorist Jean Baudrillard — you can tell he’s eminently fashionable because “Theorist” is capitalized and takes no modifier — wrote a series of articles about the Gulf War. The first, published in January as the average American was familiarizing herself with basic Kuwaiti history, was entitled “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place.” The second came out in February, in the middle of the air campaign, and was called “The Gulf War: Is It Really Taking Place?” The third and last came in March, a month after hostilities had ended, and if you’re quick on the uptake you’ll guess, correctly, that it was called “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.”
The essays are a mélange of relentlessly provocative half-insights garbled by ponderous jargon and delivered by a narrator who seems to delight in his unreliability. Their upshot is that the Gulf War wasn’t a “war” at all, that it was conducted from a technological remove and won in advance on computer screens. Representative sentence: “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.”
One major piece of evidence Baudrillard presents for his thesis is that what the world knew of the conflict was so abstracted and anesthetized that it might as well have been faked, reduced as it was to a handful of green-tinted videos of flak lazing across the Baghdad sky and nondescript bunkers exploding in the crosshairs of laser-guided munitions, all presented on continuous loop by CNN. These days, we’re used to Fox News playing the deus ex machina in the darkest conspiracy theories of the Left. But in 1991 it must have really been something to accuse a cable-news network of a feat so epic as redefining reality.
Yet, as a nostalgic James Earl Jones might intone, that was CNN. Launched on just under 2 million TV sets in June 1980, Ted Turner’s baby was a slow developer, spending its first decade working out the kinks, expanding its reach, buying up competitors, and doggedly investing in a far-flung reporting infrastructure that would let it cover every corner of the globe.
But by 1990 CNN was all grown up, and the war in the Persian Gulf would prove to be its coming-out party. So ubiquitous was CNN during those months that the other networks had to report off of its live feed during the bombing of Baghdad; that thus co-opted it reached 1 billion TV sets worldwide; that both George H. W. Bush and Saddam Hussein tuned in for the latest images from the front lines; that, in one surreal moment that furnished a kernel of truth in Baudrillard’s over-the-top analysis, a CNN camera crew broadcasting live from the Gulf approached a group of print reporters to interview them, only to find them huddled around a television — watching CNN.
In the years after, cable news would make the stern, gravelly voiced men delivering nightly half-hour briefings over your pork chops as obsolete as ticker tape. Political scientists would start analyzing “The CNN Effect,” by which the network’s saturation coverage actually shaped and accelerated the decision-making of world leaders. Even the mighty Tom Brokaw was forced to admit: “CNN used to be called the little network that could. It’s no longer the little network.”
O, but how far CNN has fallen from its days of slaying giants and inventing realities. To wit: Its ratings for the second quarter of 2012 are the worst they’ve been since before the Gulf War, and down 40 percent from a year ago. To be fair, all three major cable-news networks saw year-over-year declines this quarter, but CNN fared far worse than either MSNBC or Fox, and now has fewer than a quarter of Fox’s total viewers and a third of Fox’s weeknight primetime viewers.