In the 1980s, a few conflicts hinted at what the networks could do when they threw resources at a burst of Continuous Coverage of a major event: in 1982, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut; in 1989, the tragedy of Tiananmen Square or the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. The defining Continuous Coverage event was the 1991 Gulf War.
Those examples, though, tell us something of the information limitations of that era: the power held by governments and denied to individuals. In Beirut in ‘82, the people of the Palestinian quarter of Sabra and Chatila had no ability to call for outside help when the Christian militia went in to slaughter. In Beijing in ‘89, the Chinese Government could shut down coverage of the massacre by pulling the plug on the satellite uplinks. After Tiananmen, the only telephone technology that gave some limited voice to protests by the people was the fax machine.
Governments have lost much of their previous power to shut down coverage while individuals and groups no longer need big media to get out their message. That is what we’ve just seen displayed in Libya. In Syria, the outside media have little access, yet pictures and information flow out continuously. The phones and Facebook are working.