Skip to main content

After George W. Bush went on TV and gave his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein on Monday night, American TV didn't go berserk. In fact, an eerie calm descended.

War was inevitable, preparations for the attack and TV coverage were complete and everybody began waiting for the inevitable. The all-news channels blithely provided the weather forecast for the Baghdad area. Reporters added a new seriousness to their interviews with American military personnel.

By the time you're reading this, the attack might well have begun. We might all know whether the so-called "shock and awe" tactic has unfolded. It's unlikely that we'll have a comprehensive picture of what, exactly, is going on. The loss of human lives is not what we're going to be hearing about.

In this context, it's still worth noting what happened on TV on Tuesday afternoon. Out of the blue, Oprah Winfrey strode forth with an unusual hour of television. I knew something was happening because on the on-line Drudge Report there was a frantic request for people to contact the site if they had seen The Oprah Winfrey Show. Tuesday's Oprah aired later in the afternoon in Toronto, so I was glued to it.

By the standards of Canadian television, what happened on Oprah wasn't amazing or groundbreaking. But on mainstream American TV, it was extraordinary.

Winfrey's opening question, and the theme of the show, was, "Why do so many hate the United States?" In the studio, she had Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies, and Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist. Friedman has just finished a documentary in which he interviewed numerous Arabs in the United States and around the world in search of answers about why the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Oprah also interviewed Michael Moore and aired a Moore-produced video about America's double standards in international affairs.

The hour was a galvanizing act of broadcast journalism. It presented a distinct alternative to the perspective presented by every mainstream American broadcaster in the last few months. The message -- and there certainly was a message -- was that this war against Iraq will, as Winfrey put it, "trigger many more problems in the long term."

The program wasn't antiwar, as some American commentators are claiming already. It presented an Arab perspective on American foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East. It asked the viewers to think about the limits of the use of force. It required viewers to absorb information about how other countries perceive the United States. It created space for dissent.

At a time when the consensus in American television is that everybody should pull together and support the men and women in the U.S. military, what Oprah Winfrey did was outright subversion. In the last week, Clear Channel Worldwide Inc., America's largest radio conglomerate (and a company looking for a break from the U.S. government), has been organizing pro-Bush and pro-war rallies and then reporting on them. A Nashville TV station has been charging local advertisers to take part in an on-air, support-the-military campaign and gloating about the profits. That's just the tip of it.

Oprah Winfrey's show acknowledged a loathing for American foreign policy in much of the world. It asked viewers to consider such terms as "unilateral military onslaught" and "an amorphous coalition forming against the United States."

Winfrey is a fabulously rich and famous broadcaster. It didn't take guts to present Tuesday's program because she's hardly going to suffer from any substantial backlash. But it did take smarts to do it. In normal circumstances, the perspectives she presented would not be truly notable, but in the contemporary context, they were amazing. The problem is that the program said more about the rest of American television than it did about Oprah Winfrey. Northern Visions (CBC, 8 p.m. on Opening Night) is the latest and most ambitious art-for-television creation from Veronica Tennant. It is simultaneously a celebration of Northern culture and suggests that the cultures of medieval Europe and the Canadian North are connected.

In truth, it is far too ambitious. At times startling, beautiful and ecstatic, it is also bewildering and has segments that are utterly mundane. There is song, dance and music. There is mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell and soprano Meredith Hall singing 12th-century sacred music. There is Inuit throat singing. There is Margie Gillis dancing, but mostly seated. There is a lot of talk about light and darkness.

One segment is certainly memorable. A traditional mask-dance story from Greenland, performed by Sarah Laakkuluk Williamson, is a work of raw, primordial sexual release. Unfortunately, there really isn't an emphasis on this performance. There is too much in the program. Gillis is always a pleasure to watch but her performance looks odd (I understand she had an injury that prevented her from doing her proposed dance) and out of sync with what surrounds it. While there is much to admire -- including the huge ambition -- Northern Visions is gorgeous but middling.

The first section of Opening Night includes Tucked into Bedlam, an adorably bittersweet piece of whimsy by Tomas Kubinek. A Chaplinesque figure, Kubinek plays a put-upon, goofy little guy who represents all of humanity. It's a silly but slyly smart story about loneliness and endurance. I hope you all get to watch it, not war coverage.