Liveblogging the Real

So far on this blog, I’ve discussed liveblogging and television viewing mostly as it relates to narrative television shows and reality shows. There’s another area in which liveblogging is becoming more popular, however, and that’s news and real media events. CNN has led the pack on the news/liveblog pairing by offering open threads during two of their most popular programs, Larry King Live (which is more of an entertainment program) and Anderson Cooper 360. Yesterday’s edition of the latter featured fans first commenting about the show and Cooper himself (“Wow Anderson…what an introduction,” “Anderson’s back! Loved the live broadcasts from London”), then turning to discussing the news of the day. What is interesting (though not surprising) about these news-show liveblogs is that there is not a lot of commentary about the program itself and the way its presenting the news. Like most people watching a news program, they are simply looking for others to discuss the events of the world with as they hear about them. On this particular evening, the main subjects were the Binghamton, NY shootings and Iowa’s court decision upholding same-sex marriage rights. Some sample comments:

Maren in Oregon: [on Binghamton] The circumstances of the killings are all different, but the story of the killers seems always the same: loner, collect or buy serious weapons; silent, anti-social, depressed.

Barbara in Boston: [on Iowa] I think this is a civil rights issue and that rulings like this are progress towards greater civil liberties for all.

More on Binghamton:

Isabel: What traumatic situation for the mother of this lady …

Emma: Unbelievable…….I wonder if they’ll ever find out what set him off.

The comments proceed like this throughout the thread. There is not a lot of argument on this particular evening, but a lot of support: when commenters respond to each other, they tend to make remarks like “Good point!” and then add to or answer another commenter’s question. The tone here is obviously quite different from that of the snarky responses to narrative television. There is the sober recognition that this is real, and there’s no joking around.

One benefit some might see to liveblogs of this nature would be the possibility of a critical close reading in the vein of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Viewers watching have the chance to analyze and respond to the way the news media spins narratives, reveals its biases, and manipulates the audience. There has been some of this cropping up on the web, mostly related to Fox News, but these are all separate blog: this kind of analysis rarely takes place in the liveblogs offered by the networks themselves.

Liveblogging is also part and parcel of the age in which newsworthy events unfold before us in real time, via the media. In his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Jean Baudrillard writes about how the media build up to certain events, like wars, and subsequent media “coverage” of them is no longer war at all, but becomes pure illusion. He writes, “We are no longer in a logic of the passage from virtual to actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual” (Baudrillard 27). He goes on to state that it is precisely the “real time” nature of media coverage of war that caused this shift: ” ‘real time’ information loses itself in a completely unreal space, finally furnishing the images of pure, useless, instantaneous television where its primordial function interrupts, namely that of filling a vacuum, blocking up the screen hole through which escapes the substance of events” (Baudrillard 31). He discusses the Gulf War coverage and its predilection for extensive focus on planning, strategy, speculation, and buildup, and notes Saddam Hussein (and others’) awareness of the performative and narrative aspects of this television war.

The feature of this type of coverage that is most relevant here, however, is the cavalcade of “experts” and “specialists” trotted out to analyze each situation as it unfolds before our eyes. This is a feature that has become ubiquitous on cable (and network) television news, and the news event liveblog has, in many ways, become an extension of it. The liveblog allows us not only to register our reactions to certain events, but to take part in what we think might just be an important historical event. We want to saturate ourselves in this event, feel a part of it, predict it, and perhaps (especially in the case of 9/11) help others solve or make sense of it. Baudrillard writes, “The war, along with the fake and presumptive warriors, generals, experts, and television presenters we see speculating about it all through the day, watches itself in a mirror: am I pretty enough, am I operational enough, am I spectacular enough, am I sophisticated enough to make an entry onto the historical stage?” (Baudrillard 31-32)

At this point, media coverage of September 11th is the most interesting evidence we have of the way real time media changes the way we view the world. Though there were no liveblogs (that I could locate) of the event, regular people participated in the coverage by photographing, videotaping, and later recounting their versions of events to various news outlets. Television coverage of the event (available via youtube) demonstrates exactly what makes real time media participation so irresistable: the “narrative” is still coming together, and we have the power to shape it. Many conspiracy theories have come from the fact that there were so many conflicting eye witness accounts thrown around in the media immediately following the attacks. Awestruck bystanders reported seeing military planes, exploding bombs, and many other things that were later discounted, but they remained in the minds of those of us watching. The real time coverage in this case seemed to be the opposite of the Gulf War coverage as characterized by Baudrillard: there was no buildup, just event and aftermath, and an atmosphere of unpredictability and panic exuded from our TV sets. It was only in the coverage following the initial hysteria that the narrative began to come together, leading to the intensely manipulated media coverage of the “war on terror” and the Iraq War to follow.

It is this type of spontaneity, then, that I think today’s livebloggers wish to capture when they chronicle news events. We want to capture a historical event before it becomes history, but most of the time, as in the case of Obama’s inaguration, the events and public reaction to them have been predetermined. We hope, through liveblogging, to capture an honest moment of history-in-the-making, like the Zapruder film or NBC’s live shot of tower two being struck.

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