Late afternoon thoughts on Aaron Brown, IFBs, control rooms and the pandemic

Aaron Brown wasn't sure who was in his ear.

"We have, um, one of our producers on the phone, and I didn't get the name, so, why don't we just go ahead," said Brown as he anchored live coverage of the World Trade Center attacks.

"Are you there?"

Brown's ear had in it what in the television news game is called an IFB. IFB stands for interruptible foldback. It's a kind of earpiece that delivers a one-way audio feed into the head of the TV reporter. It is a medium used to deliver cues and information to the reporter from the TV control room. If you've ever seen a live reporter touch or motion to her or his ear to get a better handle on the incoming information, you have seen an IFB at work.

That second, Brown, as one of the Twin Towers still stood behind him like giant chimney emitting smoke from hell, was in silent contact via IFB with the CNN control room. Someone, the director, a producer, maybe, was telling him that another producer, Rose Arce, was on the line and was ready to go live with the latest account of the mayhem. This is what a control room does. It is the brain in TV news. It is (or was, it's been a few years) where unseen-to-the-viewer personnel decide what shots you see on the screen, who you hear from, when the anchor speaks, when it's time for a commercial and from where all the rest of the decisions are made to keep the show flowing.

Control room, Toronto

(Disclosure: I worked behind the scenes in TV news for 15 years. I had great respect for the people in front of the camera, and still do, but I always thought the real action was in the control room. And I still think viewers should be able to watch what happens in the control room alongside the main signal. Infrastructure people can be show biz people too!) 

But IFBs and control rooms are not the item. 

The item is the sense that embedded itself in me on September 11, the feeling that has yet to let go, that Aaron Brown's control room was not just the CNN control room. The other control room was half way around the world  in the compound or the cave or the office or wherever it was that the directors of the attacks sat watching the news coverage that they were, in a real way, the authors of. 

The directors of the attacks had planted themselves into the mediasphere that day and were calling the shots. News media can be hijacked, too. Its mechanisms can be taken over and made to deliver fear and anxiety and dread, and not just the news, into the body politic.

I keep seeing this stuff, and, lately, it has come rolling back into view. 

Because of the novel coronavirus. 

Let me get this straight. 

The coronavirus uses my own hands and fingers to infect my own body. If, say, I pick up the virus after touching a hard surface that it's living on, and then I rub my eyes or scratch my ear or absent-mindedly put my hand to my mouth, the virus gets in and starts to do its deadly work. My brain is saying, Kub, rub your eyes, or, Kub, scratch your ear, but the virus has installed itself above my brain and is using my brain to send routine messages to my limbs to do the work that could, if things would ever deteriorate to that degree, undo the very ability of that brain to send messages and those limbs to receive them. 

The hijacking coronavirus, it turns out, is in a kind of control room of its own. Right now, it's running the show.

What's the lesson? I'm not sure. But I think it's valuable to remember that we make our tools (TV stations, arms and fingers, media of all kind, I suppose) and that they then have the power to remake, or unmake, us. 

I'm going to wash my hands now. 


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