In its way, the gory execution of Nick Berg was reality TV. In this way: It might not have happened at all, and certainly not as it did, without the presence of a camera.
It was all done as show: the hooded figures facing the lens, the victim kneeling in orange overalls clearly meant to signify prisoners at Guantanamo. The message was about humiliation: You humiliate us through pictures, and we do it back, in our way, which is brutal but unsexualized, by contrast. It had as little to do with reality itself, as reality TV does. It’s true that Donald Trump hires and fires people in reality, but not those people on that set in that way. People get hired, fired or executed in both instances, but some would anyway, and some do so only because a camera is present, to record and disseminate it.
Think back a moment to the most familiar videos from the Persian Gulf war, 13 years ago: shots of glowing, green radar screens as missiles launch and strike. They looked like video games, everyone said, and their purpose was obviously to antisepticize death, render it impersonal. Like the Berg execution video, they were made as propaganda, but at least you could say they were based on a reality, something happening in the world — bombing — which would have happened anyway, even had no camera recorded it.
Now think about the Abu Ghraib prison photos. At first they seemed to be candid shots of what actually goes on there. As if someone said: Hey, wait a minute, I’ll get my camera.
On second look, they seem more posed. Everyone is gazing at the camera, mugging, or they are arranged for it, in the case of the victims. And now PFC Lynndie England has said they were, indeed, ordered to pose. So it’s more reality TV, in the sense that it is unreal, or real only for the purpose of creating images.
The U.S. soldiers look like characters on a reality TV show called Baghdad Prison, even if their victims do not. Evidently there has been abuse in that prison, but we see little of its reality through those staged photos.
The situation of a camera that tries to present reality has always been problematic. Back in the 1960s, a filmmaker like Allan King would attempt to document a group home for troubled kids (Warrendale) or a marital breakup (A Married Couple). His challenge was basically: Can you overcome the disruptive effect of (at the time, very bulky) camera, lights and crew, to somehow convey a normal, real situation?
A film like the recent Israeli documentary, Checkpoint, also aims to get at the truth of daily harassment and tension in the occupied territories. Did they succeed, or do we simply get to see what those checkpoints are like when a crew is filming them, so that it’s all toned down, or prettied up, for the camera? There’s no clear answer, it’s an ongoing challenge. Even if they had afterward filmed Palestinians watching the film, and asked if it felt accurate, they might only have got the reaction of people being filmed, to the film.
At least in those cases, the tension between the camera and reality gets wrestled with. Does the filming process distort or destroy the reality? In reality TV, that tension evaporates; it’s no reality and all TV. The couple on a date, the conspiracies on the island, the makeover, the reno, the hiring and firing, exist only for the camera. Reality, as a realm that exists outside any form of recording it, has vanished. The taped execution and the prison-abuse photos, ape that unreality, making them even harder to assimilate.
If anyone feels it’s a bit jarring to place a beheading and reality TV in the same framework, I agree. But so what? All last week, the revelations on Abu Ghraib were interspersed with reports about the final episode of Friends, and hefty analysis of whether it meant the demise of the sitcom in favour of, ah, reality TV. Those grating examples pale, in my view, compared with the need to quickly wrap up a debate on war crimes to break for ads, or end an interview with the parents of a dead soldier for a station break. Reality is embarrassing, so is TV. We’re an embarrassing species.