Subliminal war rages across airwaves, U.S.

Like quick-firing subliminal messengers, special music is telling TV viewers and radio listeners what to think and how to feel about the war on Iraq even before they hear the news.

Some news outfits, most notably NPR, are augmenting reporting with music that telegraphs the idea that something important is about to be said, without being especially militaristic, patriotic or mournful.

But others, such as CNN, CBS and Fox News, are producing a soundtrack to news that yells, “We’re at war!”

CBS ordered up a package of music options from composer Peter Fish “to try to take into account as many situations as possible,” said Eric Shapiro, director of the “CBS Evening News” and CBS News special events. Fish sketched out several music “proposals,” which Shapiro and other CBS executives listened to. “We told him two things: to convey some idea of mood, and also to write something to sync up with particular animation or graphics.”

Shapiro could not say exactly which emotions he wanted to convey. But CBS’ music is the most overtly warlike, a surging electronic wall of sound that seems to use the beating rotors of attack helicopters as its rhythmic inspiration.

“You know when the mood is right,” Shapiro said. “I’m not a musician, but like everyone else, you have a feeling about what is right for the event.”

Fish, who came up with a variety of music for use with news programs, magazines and special reports, said he was looking to convey a “climate of fear.”

“To me, this is the real deal, this is a real live war, and we should be both awed and simultaneously scared,” he said.

An NBC spokeswoman said special music had been chosen for all of the news shows on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

Thursday, ABC News ended its coverage of the Camp David news conference of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair with a sweeping, dignified horn solo.

No such musical impartiality from Fox News. Hard-rock instrumentals blare as fighter jets, one of which morphs into an audibly screeching eagle, cross the screen, and the curiously misleading words “War on Terror” come up large.

“The other networks, they always go for that John Williams, big, grand music, but our music is always pointedly more aggressive,” said Richard O’Brien, vice president and creative director for Fox News. “I feel the sound of Fox News Channel has branded us more than the look has. It’s rock-influenced, for sure. We try to keep the sound and look younger and hipper than what our competition is.”

CNN’s lead-in music, purchased from a commercial music service and chosen by senior CNN managers, is no pushover, either. It is a throbbing, bellicose buildup of sounds, and makes an odd counterpoint to anchor Paula Zahn’s irrepressible grin.

Nashville composer Bob Farnsworth says CNN’s music takes an unusually strong stand.

“Look at the graphics – it’s this chiseled-out-of-stone imprint, really severe, and this really kick-butt graphic goes with this kick-butt music. It seems more like a video game,” said Farnsworth, whose company, Hummingbird Productions, scores music for films and commercials but has not yet been called on for this particular war.

Music bumpers between war reports on CNN Radio use some of the same TV music but also offer more reflective piano music.

National Public Radio has special theme music for its wall-to-wall war coverage, as well as for shows aired as part of its normal broadcast schedule.

Bob Boilen, NPR’s director for “All Things Considered,” worked with composer Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr to come up with themes ranging from 12 seconds to a minute or more.

“Sept. 11 was actually easier,” Boilen said, “because on Sept. 11 it was an unmistakable emotion in everybody’s heart, and all you had to do is be supportive of that emotion without making a movie out of it.

“So the kind of thing we were trying to shoot is more compassionate music, more thoughtful without being sad, because no matter how you feel about this conflict, I think people feel compassion for the soldiers and the innocents.”

NPR has gotten so much listener response to the music it uses in its war coverage that it has set up a special Web site listing and sampling the selections:

NPR’s Freymann-Weyr said he was writing the synthesizer music (adapted from themes he wrote in 2001 to go with Afghanistan-invasion coverage) with a few adjectives in mind.

“I wanted it to sound serious and trustworthy, as opposed to ‘This is a great thing’ or ‘This is an awful thing.'”