Ukraine on TV: A Cold War Nightmare Meets Modern Politics

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If you are more than a few decades old, the invasion of Ukraine was horrific but familiar. It was what TV had taught you to expect since childhood.

There was the buildup of tensions over a supposed “military exercise,” the scenario that opened “The Day After” in 1983. There were the columns of tanks, an image out of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet newsreels and the 1984 movie “Red Dawn.” There were the maps of Europe, with arrows diagraming pincer attacks and fire-red explosion graphics.

There was the American president pledging that this aggression would not stand. There was his glowering Russian counterpart proclaiming his country’s destiny and threatening woe to any who interfered. There was the live video from the United Nations, as desperate diplomats flung mere words, no competition for the detonations on the other side of the split screen.

This was the worst kind of nostalgia programming. This was the background chatter in the first act of a Very Special TV Movie, just before the whistle overhead and the blinding flash in the distance.

At the same time, especially if you grew up with Cold War TV specials and bomb drills, this was also nothing that you had expected to see. Some of the differences were technological — smartphone video, discussions of cyber warfare.

But above all, you would not expect to see programs on an American news channel, if not taking the side of the Russian aggressor, at least giving a platform to its excusers and sophists.

You certainly would not have expected that one of those apologists, even as the blitz began, would be the previous American president. But there was Donald Trump on Wednesday night, ushering in the world’s new war the way he began his political career: Calling in to Fox News.

Mr. Trump, who had called President Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine “pretty smart” and has seemed constitutionally unable to utter a cross word about the Russian leader, saved his harshest rhetoric on Laura Ingraham’s show for his successor, and in service of his ongoing lies about the election he lost.

Mr. Trump’s “good relationship” with Mr. Putin, he said, was “hurt by the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax.” The invasion, he said, “all happened because of a rigged election.” (Ms. Ingraham dismissed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine’s plea that Russia not overrun his country as a “pathetic display.”)

They used to say during wartime that politics stops at the water’s edge. Now it doesn’t stop until the commercial break.

The Fox News host Tucker Carlson spent the run-up to the attack in sneering anti-anti-Putin mode. He said Ukraine was not a democracy but a U.S. “client state.” He argued, with a mix of swipes against China and his familiar appeals to racial and cultural grievance, that Democrats were trying to “mandate” that Americans hate Mr. Putin. (“Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Mr. Carlson asked. “Does he eat dogs?”) Russian state media gave Mr. Carlson a rave review, picking up his commentary.

Thursday night, with Russia having moved more aggressively than “certainly this show ever anticipated,” Mr. Carlson staged a tactical retreat. “Vladimir Putin started this war,” he said. “He is to blame for what we’re seeing tonight.” He then pivoted to blaming “the usual liars on TV” for leveraging the invasion for partisan gain, likening it to calls for gun control after school shootings. (He also had a series of guests repeat that NATO should offer a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join it, a longtime Putin demand.)

Meanwhile, Fox’s daytime programs, in a sort of flanking move, featured guests who decried President Biden’s response as not tough enough. “Where was the action? Where was the outrage?” asked Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador. You could see conservative talking points re-form in real time; by the end of Thursday, Sean Hannity and other commenters were preaching the gospel of beating Mr. Putin via oil drilling and fracking.

On CNN, the coverage of the invasion — with nighttime fireballs, plumes of smoke and reporters in protective vests — recalled its historic broadcasts from the beginning of the first Gulf War, as well as its on-the-ground coverage of later bombardments. Even shock and awe eventually becomes a rerun.

But this time, although CNN captured some video of Russian special forces at an air base, reporters had only so much access to the front lines. The networks relied heavily on personal smartphone video, including, in a grim crossover, footage shot by the “Dancing With the Stars” dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

This was also a war fought by an aggressor that uses disinformation as a weapon. The Soviets had the Iron Curtain; Mr. Putin, with his troll armies and cynical meme warfare, has the Irony Curtain. Anchors spent much of their time pushing back. CNN’s Jake Tapper disdained the Russian claim that it had invaded to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, noting that Mr. Zelensky is Jewish.

The epochal global events unfolded with reminders of domestic politics. Broadcast networks cut into afternoon programming for President Biden’s speech, which cast Mr. Putin as a bully who had chosen war and needed to be restrained for the good of the world; he also promised to minimize the effect of planned sanctions on Americans, and to keep gas prices under control.

Sometimes grave images collided with TV business as usual. In a CNN clip, footage of air-raid sirens ominously sounding in Ukraine segued straight to the Zac Brown Band serenading glistening chicken pieces in an Applebee’s ad.

Other images were both ordinary and horrible, like the scenes of Ukrainian families using a subway station as a bomb shelter or escaping on foot along a highway.

As the invasion’s first day went on, the gravity, and the chilling uncertainty, sank in. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow broke her hiatus to host two hours in prime time. Earlier, Chuck Todd considered the scenario of Mr. Putin testing NATO by deciding, “Let me try a tactical nuclear weapon and just see what happens,” his voice quavering as he finished.

I felt that quaver. This story was not simply one more skirmish in the endless cable war of words. This was war-war, as modeled by an international authoritarian movement flexing its muscle, executed by a country with a doomsday arsenal and ordered by a tyrant of questionable stability.

It was also, however, a war between two other countries — by Friday morning, it was sharing space on American morning shows with stories about Covid policy and a busy upcoming wedding season. Avril Lavigne performed on “Good Morning America.”

You could see this as evidence that we were still living in the same world that we lived in last week. You could assure yourself that this did not fit the apocalypse-film script, that this was not, in the end, “The Day After.”

You might also remember, though, that that is exactly the sort of thing someone always says in the first 15 minutes of the disaster movie.


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