Live video in Ukraine delivers war weapon Putin did not see coming

Olena Gnes is a weapon of war that Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly did not count on.

Gnes, a Ukrainian tour guide, can be seen live on American television from a bomb shelter in Kyiv, clutching her five-month old baby as her two other children huddle next to her. In clear English, she stares down the camera, brands Russia the aggressor, and challenges the West to do more to stop the war in Ukraine.

Change the channel, and there is another mother. Her name is Oksana, and she is live from a crowded subway station with her two children. Flip again, and find video of a solitary Ukrainian woman confronting a bewildered Russian soldier on a street corner, handing him seeds so that sunflowers will grow when he is buried following Russia’s failed effort to overrun her country.

This is unlike any war coverage viewers have seen: dominated by regular people, urgent faces and voices, mothers and wives and children, speaking live to the world in real time. And it is largely due to a piece of technology that fits easily in a backpack.

More on that in a minute. But it is first worth understanding how televised images have impacted the course of war for the last half-century — and how the evolution of television will continue to make the reality of conflict impossible to ignore.

That story begins, of course, with Vietnam — commonly known as “the first television war.” Back then, network news correspondents freely went out into combat zones with American troops and brought the battles into American living rooms. 

None of it was live, not even close. Film from the front lines was often flown to Tokyo, where it was developed, edited and then flown to the U.S. But the power of those up-close images — bombs exploding, the wounded screaming, correspondents in the crossfire — was seen by many as partially responsible for turning public opinion against the war. 

Coverage of the two Gulf Wars brought live reporting into viewers’ homes, but in very limited ways. In the first war, viewers had access to a relatively new 24-hour cable service, CNN. Correspondents Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman reported live from inside a Baghdad hotel room as bombs exploded just outside their window. In the second Gulf War, in 2003, TV reporters were able to venture outside their hotels and bureaus; they were “embedded” with U.S. troops, often reporting live from armored vehicles as soldiers headed toward the battlefield.

But the ability to move about freely, away from the Army, to go live with civilians and show that aspect of the conflict, was still close to impossible. The “embeds” were criticized by some for only reporting the military’s point of view. But network correspondents were tied down by equipment, relying on bulky satellite phones and trunk-sized microwave dishes. It was like running a race while dragging an anchor behind you.

What viewers are seeing now — and what Vladimir Putin probably did not think about — is what happens when television can throw off that anchor.

In place off all that equipment and the support personnel required, news outlets now have access to something called LiveU. It was first adopted by bloggers, allowing them to air live video on social media. But the technology continued to improve and quickly became a TV news staple. A professional LiveU unit — and others like it — fits in a backpack and costs about $1,500. For another $45 a month, you have constant contact with a cloud-based internet connection anywhere in the world. It works with a small portable high-grade camera, or with the camera on a smartphone.

All of this makes it extremely difficult for any government to control the narrative anymore.  In Beijing, 4,000 miles from Kyiv, Chinese President Xi Jinping may have hoped to adapt Putin’s tactics for any potential strategies regarding, say, Taiwan. What he’s seeing live was most likely not part of his planning playbook, either. 

And so, mothers like Olena and Oksana are now the faces of war. Their children are who viewers think of as Russian tanks advance on Ukrainian cities. If the attack moves into an urban warfare phase — fighting block by block, house by house — more of those faces will show up live on home screens around the world.

Up close and personal has always been what television does best. It shows emotions better than it can relay facts, heated passion better than cool judgment. It places the viewer in the shoes of someone else better than any other medium. And now it can do it better than ever. The tight shot — delivered live and unedited — reveals everything, hides nothing.

Putin definitely did not count on that.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Armed Attack correspondent Live coverage Mass media reporters Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Smartphones Social media Television news Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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