Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace Agree
Reporters First, Americans Second
In a future war involving U.S. soldiers
what would a TV reporter do if he learned the enemy troops with which he
was traveling were about to launch a surprise attack on an American
unit? That's just the question Harvard University professor Charles
Ogletree Jr, as moderator of PBS' Ethics in America series,
posed to ABC anchor Peter Jennings and 60 Minutes correspondent
Mike Wallace. Both agreed getting ambush footage for the evening news
would come before warning the U.S. troops.
For the March 7 installment on
battlefield ethics Ogletree set up a theoretical war between the North
Kosanese and the U.S.-supported South Kosanese. At first Jennings
responded: "If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon
Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the
Wallace countered that other reporters,
including himself, "would regard it simply as another story that
they are there to cover." Jennings' position bewildered Wallace:
"I'm a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an
American, you would not have covered that story."
"Don't you have a higher duty as an
American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather
than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?" Ogletree asked.
Without hesitating Wallace responded: "No, you don't have higher
duty... you're a reporter." This convinces Jennings, who concedes,
"I think he's right too, I chickened out."
Ogletree turns to Brent Scrowcroft, now
the National Security Adviser, who argues "you're Americans first,
and you're journalists second." Wallace is mystified by the
concept, wondering "what in the world is wrong with photographing
this attack by North Kosanese on American soldiers?" Retired
General William Westmoreland then points out that "it would be
repugnant to the American listening public to see on film an ambush of
an American platoon by our national enemy."
A few minutes later Ogletree notes the
"venomous reaction" from George Connell, a Marine Corps
Colonel. "I feel utter contempt. Two days later they're both
walking off my hilltop, they're two hundred yards away and they get
ambushed. And they're lying there wounded. And they're going to expect
I'm going to send Marines up there to get them. They're just
journalists, they're not Americans."
Wallace and Jennings agree, "it's a
fair reaction." The discussion concludes as Connell says: "But
I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. And
Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists."
New to U.S. News.
Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News & World Report, has
successfully lured Michael Barone away from The Washington Post
where he's been an editorial writer since 1982. Barone, co-author of the
Almanac of American Politics, became a Senior Editor in early
From 1974 to 1981 he served as Vice
President of Peter Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm.
Among the clients handled by Barone: Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential
From the Hart of Europe.
Time's Robert Miller revealed the liberal background of one
staffer in his March 27 "From the Publisher" column. Kenneth
Banta, a Chicago and New York based Time reporter starting in
1981 "took a leave of absence in 1984 to work as an issues adviser
for Gary Hart's first unsuccessful presidential campaign."
The partisan political foray was no
hindrance to his career. Banta is now Time's Vienna-based
Eastern European Bureau Chief.
Wiring the Hill. The
Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reports two wire service
veterans have switched from reading to writing press releases. Wendy
Benjaminson, a political editor at UPI's national desk until she became
a Capitol Hill reporter in December, is now the Press Secretary to U.S.
Representative Barbara Kennelly, a Connecticut Democrat
Republican Lynn Martin of Illinois has
hired David Fox, an Associated Press reporter in Washington the past two
years, to be her Press Secretary. Fox held a variety of radio and TV
positions in the Midwest before joining AP ten years ago.
Katherine Gibney, an editor and reporter for the Atlanta Journal
and Atlanta Constitution since 1984 has joined the office of
Congressman Ben Jones as Press Secretary. The freshman Democrat from
Georgia gained fame by starring as "Cooter" in the Dukes
of Hazzard TV series.
Los Angeles Times Publisher Tom Johnson, formerly an Executive
Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary to President Johnson, has promoted
another aide to a former President. In February Johnson made Lawrence
Higby President of the Orange County edition of the Times.
Higby, once a Deputy Assistant to Nixon, had been a Vice President in
charge of marketing for Times Mirror Cable Television.
Despite Legal Troubles
Leftist Reporter Given PBS Show
What does one do with an aging,
left-leaning reporter who's battling civil suits for libel and copyright
infringement? If you are the Public Broadcasting System, you give him a
weekly half-hour public affairs show forum for his views.
Each week more than 70 PBS affiliates air
The Kwitny Report, hosted by former Wall Street Journal
reporter Jonathan Kwitny. On a recent broadcast, Kwitny featured a
hostile profile of anti-communist guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi,
calling him, "just one more blood-stained autocrat on the U.S.
taxpayers' payroll." Some footage was supplied by the Cuban U.N.
In February, Kwitny was found liable in
Southern District of New York Federal Court of copyright infringement
for his 1984 book, Endless Enemies. The book denounced American
"interventionism" in Central America and elsewhere in the
world, while comparing Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro favorably with Polish
Labor Leader Lech Walesa.
Despite the removal of Endless
Enemies from the shelves by nervous book store owners during
litigation, Kwitny hawked it at the end of a March broadcast last year
as a premium to subscribers to PBS' New York affiliate, WNYC-TV, which
produces The Kwitny Report. This resulted in a second
infringement suit against Kwitny. He is also fighting libel suit from a
1987 appearance on a local New York Cable program in which he repeated
the charges made in Endless Enemies. At present, PBS doesn't
seem bothered by either Kwitny's legal difficulties or his enthusiasm
for promoting left-wing views "considering that none are ever seen
on television anywhere," according to Kwitny in WNYC's monthly
Janet Cooke Award
Today: Salvador Slant
There is cause for both optimism and
pessimism in El Salvador today. The densely-populated Central American
nation has achieved a milestone: its second national presidential
election has put new life into the fledgling democracy. But while
democratic principles are being exercised, the now nine year-old civil
war rages on. Despite one million dollars a day in U.S. economic and
military aid, the government still cannot crush the FMLN communist
insurgency, funded and supported by the Soviet Union, Nicaragua and
Corruption and mismanagement by the
Christian Democratic centrist government and the 1986 earthquake set the
economy and democracy back, but the continuous economic sabotage and
terrorism by the communist rebels is the root cause of the misery, death
It was not the decade long crimes of the
communists that concerned the networks when covering recent elections.
Instead, reporters concentrated almost exclusively on the atrocities of
the right. Garrick Utley's March 12 Sunday Today report was the
most one-sided and earns the April Janet Cooke Award.
Political murderers by the Salvadoran
army and right wing paramilitary death squads are still occurring in El
Salvador and Utley certainly had a duty to note it. But his eight and
one half minute long report never mentioned the equally bloody murders
committed by the FMLN. The opening of his report showed just how
selective he planned to be: "The war is still going on there. The
right-wing death squads were controlled for a while, but now the number
of the victims is increasing again."
Reinforcing his theme, Utley conveyed the
story of the death of Miguel Lazo: "Our story is about a body which
was dug up. Miguel Lazo was his name, a teacher and a union official,
murdered it is believed by one of the death squads linked to the armed
forces... he knew that union officials are prime targets for the
right-wing death squads."
The number of political deaths has not
risen drastically as Utley claimed. In 1980, the number killed by
right-wing and left-wing death squads combined was 750 per month; in
1981, it was 444. The number came down steadily throughout the decade
and averaged 22 in 1986, 23 in 1987, and 18 in 1988. Human rights groups
put the number at 21 per month so far this year. Despite the improved
situation, Utley still singled out government forces: "This too was
Miguel Lazo's world, a confrontation between union members and their
supporters, and the army in the capital San Salvador itself. The armed
forces see the unions as allies and sympathizers of the Marxist-led
guerrillas. The unions see the armed forces as the force of repression.
This soldier wanted to open fire, but was ordered not to. The killing
can always be done at night, anonymously, as it happened to Miguel Lazo."
What about the left-wing murders? The
U.S. Embassy estimated that of the 185 killings of non-combatants in the
first ten months of 1988, 54 were clearly perpetrated by the FMLN;
another 60 were probable FMLN murders. The left-leaning and FMLN-sympathetic
Salvadoran Catholic Church claimed most 1988 murders were committed by
the "security forces (92)," while another 60 were committed by
"death squads (not further defined)." It did, however,
attribute 44 killings to the FMLN.
While the numbers are conflicting, it is
clear the communists are killing and aiming at high profile figures to
sabotage local political structures and the democratic process. Among
the killings by the FMLN in 1988: eight mayors, one ex-mayor, and one
governor. Another 80 mayors received death threats from the communists
and were intimidated to resigning.
Utley noted "the increase in
violence from the left as the war moves into the city" and showed
the rebels making Molotov cocktails, but the 22-year news veteran
deliberately left out the FMLN's assassinations and their disruption of
the recent elections. Instead, he harped on ARENA founder Robert
D'Aubuisson's link to death squads, complaining that "many people
see" Arena presidential candidate Cristiani "as the front man
for the real power in the party."
asked Garrick Utley to discuss these points, but he repeatedly declined,
explaining: "I don't talk about the work. My attitude is that the
work has to speak for itself. Every viewer or reader can have their
interpretation of it. I can't get into the details of this or that, or
it just becomes an open-ended, very subjective approach to it."
When told that MediaWatch
wants to provide reporters with the opportunity to defend their stories,
Utley responded: "I appreciate you calling, but I don't get into
debates on this sort of thing. The report is there. No report is made in
heaven." Probably true, at least Utley's report wasn't made there.
Unless it was in FMLN-heaven....if there is one.
CBS Spikes Pro-Life.
From March 20 to 25, pro-life Operation Rescue demonstrators barred
entrances to abortion clinics in California. According to Newsweek,
police arrested more than 700 protestors. On March 22, CNN PrimeNews
covered the story. On March 23, NBC Today and Nightly News
looked at the event. On March 24, ABC's Good Morning America
and NBC Nightly News mentioned the protests. And on March 25,
ABC, CNN, and NBC carried the news.
CBS This Morning and Evening
News viewers never heard about the demonstrations. CBS spiked the
story. However, not all protests were blacked out by CBS. On March 28, This
Morning news anchor Charles Osgood easily found the time to show
three lonely demonstrators opposing nuclear power at Three Mile Island.
Gorbachev's Useful Flacks.
Early March marked the fourth anniversary of Gorbachev's rise to power.
During the March 11 CBS Evening News, Moscow correspondent
Barry Petersen admired Gorbachev's "courage to end Soviet
involvement" in Afghanistan. "The Soviets didn't win,"
Petersen declared, "but Gorbachev did." Ironically, Petersen
also found Gorbachev's Moscow "triumph" over "cold
warrior" Reagan noteworthy, forgetting it was President Reagan's
support for the Afghans that defeated the Soviet Army.
ABC's Rick Inderfurth joined the lovefest
during the next day's World News Sunday. "On the
international stage," Inderfurth declared, Gorbachev "is a
superstar, the toast of the West." Inderfurth considered Gorbachev
a "popular leader, despite those long [food] lines."
Inderfurth praised the upcoming "first contested elections since
Lenin's day," forgetting that in January 1918 Lenin used armed
sailors to stop the Constituent Assembly from falling into the hands of
non-Bolsheviks, Russia's only real experiment in democracy.
NBC's Missed Gap In Glasnost.
On March 11 CNN PrimeNews interviewed Soviet dissident
Konstantin Karmonov, once a political prisoner and victim of abusive
treatment in Soviet mental hospitals. Asked about the current status of
Soviet psychiatry, Karmonov replied, "as for its essence, nothing
has changed." The next morning, The New York Times
concurred, with a front page headline, "U.S. Psychiatrists Fault
Soviet Units." The subhead read: "Team Finds Inmates Are Still
Held for Political Reasons."
NBC Nightly News anchor Connie
Chung, however, told viewers just the opposite: "U.S. officials in
Moscow said today they have been unable to determine, after meetings
with patients in Soviet mental hospitals, whether they are being held
because of their political beliefs."
Turner Turns On NBC.
Turner Broadcasting Service head Ted Turner has never been known to keep
his personal opinions to himself, a reputation demonstrated again
recently. Speaking before the Washington Metro Area Cable Club on March
8, the CNN owner claimed General Electric, the parent company of NBC, is
run by "bozos" and "thieves" who have been
"indicted and admitted to stealing from the Pentagon," making
GE the "most corrupt corporation in America." According to
Turner "these crooks, these convicted felons, should be behind
Maybe it's just coincidence, but in late
April NBC is launching the Consumers News and Business Channel, a new
Lashing the Whip. When
House Republicans elected Rep. Newt Gingrich their Whip, some major
newspapers and magazines immediately cast doubt on his views and skills.
The March 23 Washington Post reported "his ideas are often
far from the mainstream of even Republican thought." According to Time,
"Gingrich is a bomb thrower...more interested in right-wing
grandstanding than in fostering bipartisanship." U.S. News and
World Report said Gingrich "resembles a frisky chipmunk
scurrying from idea to idea and storing too many bad ones."
But when Rep. Tony Coelho was elected
Majority Whip in 1986, the reporters took a much different slant. The
New York Times told readers "Mr. Coelho's politics are about
mid-range on the Democratic spectrum," and the Los Angeles
Times asserted "Coelho is not known as an ideologue" and
"just what he stands for remains a mystery."
The truth is that Gingrich is no more
conservative than Coelho is liberal. Gingrich averages about an 80
rating from the American Conservative Union while Coelho gets a similar
approval level from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. In the
eyes of the print media, not all whips are created equal.
National Association of Children's Hospitals issued a study that
provided reporters with an opportunity to simultaneously attack past
Reagan policies and urge increased social spending. Naturally, CBS
Dan Rather introduced Susan Spencer's
story on the health threat posed to poor kids by asserting,
"children are already suffering from cutbacks during the Reagan
Administration." Spencer blamed the children's health care
"crisis" on "social apathy, in particular on Reagan era
budget cuts." Spencer highlighted the report's call for
"immediate expansion of medicaid which now covers only half the
children in poverty."
ABC was the only other network to cover
the study. Peter Jennings reported the study's concern for "child
abuse, accidental death, and chronic illness," but he refrained
from gratuitous Reagan-bashing.
Alar Alarm. On February
26 CBS' 60 Minutes gave an exclusive report on a study produced
by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a liberal environmental
lobby, charging the pesticide Alar makes apples unsafe to eat. The
segment by Ed Bradley so alarmed viewers it led to a nationwide apple
scare that took three government agencies weeks to calm down.
Viewers weren't told that months earlier
CBS guaranteed the NRDC prominent 60 Minutes coverage of their
study well before the network had any idea of its validity. In the
report, Bradley called Alar "the most cancer-causing agent in our
food supply" and let Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-MN) talk grimly of
children dying in cancer wards.
60 Minutes didn't mention
opposing views, like a report by the National Academy of Sciences which
found no evidence that any individual pesticide "makes a major
contribution to the risk of cancer in humans." Not only did 60
Minutes give exclusive license to the claims of a liberal lobby, it
needlessly scared millions of parents and school officials with a
politically motivated and scientifically dubious report.
Ms. Streep Goes to Washington.
Where should we turn for expert advice about food? According to CBS News
medical correspondent Susan Spencer on the March 16 Evening News,
"amid scary reports of cancer-causing chemicals on apples,
cyanide-laced grapes from Chile and potential problems with just about
all fruit, Capitol Hill today turned to actress Meryl Streep, who seemed
to sum it all up." Streep's profound question: "Are we not
allowed to know what's on our food?"
Deadbeats for Dukakis.
Michael Dukakis' Massachusetts budget deficit woes caught the eye of CBS
correspondent Richard Schlesinger on the March 10 Evening News.
Schlesinger was desperately seeking
someone in the Bay State not mad about the Duke's spending spree that
has turned a $400 million surplus the year before into a $600 million
deficit. He reported, "the Governor's most vocal supporters are
government officials and employees, who worry that budget cuts will
eliminate vital services." Couldn't be they're worried about their
jobs, could it?
Ellerbee's Elucidations. The
same week CNN anchor Mary Alice Williams left for NBC, Linda Ellerbee
showed up. In her first PrimeNews commentary, she told her
audience a little something about herself: "Well, am I a liberal, a
conservative, or what? What."
Has Ellerbee come to any decisions in
other areas? "I believe in sunny summer mornings when the grass is
sweet and the wind is green with possibilities. I believe in chili with
no beans and iced tea all year round...that Beethoven would have liked
Chuck Berry." CNN may never be the same again, unfortunately.
One-Sided Susan. The CBS
Evening News used its March 5 "Inside Sunday" segment to
investigate ethics. Susan Spencer analyzed the new administration, but
curiously omitted using anyone who would defend President Bush or offer
a different point of view from the standard "sleaze factor"
For her testimony, Spencer relied on
sources like Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause, who wondered if Bush would
abandon Reagan's "no-expectation ethics" and Ira Katznelson of
the New School for Social Research, who, Spencer reported, thought
"all this ethics talk is merely a diversion to avoid tough
problems, like drugs, homelessness, and poverty."
Failing the Fair Litmus Test.
In its recent study of guests on ABC's Nightline, the far-left
media critics at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) complained
that not enough liberals and leftists are allowed on to offer
alternative viewpoints. Among those considered not "liberal"
-- Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who
"accepts much of the [anti-communist] rhetoric and plays the role
of insider opponent, disagreeing on specific administration tactics
without challenging the underlying assumptions of the policy (i.e., that
the U.S. seeks to bring "democracy" to Nicaragua)."
-- Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), another
Contra aid opponent. FAIR complained that Nightline
"tilted the discussion rightward by excluding forthright opponents
of U.S. policy in Central America," then listed Bonior, duly noted
-- Tom Wicker, The New York Times
columnist, because he "is in no way connected to the movement
opposing U.S. policy in Central America."
-- Michael Kinsley, Editor of The New
Republic. FAIR took exception to labeling the anti-Contra Kinsley a
"journalist of the left," saying his magazine was pro-Contra
and "centrist" at best.
Cabbage Patch Currier.
"Cabbage patch commandos" is how CBS News reporter Frank
Currier disparagingly referred to those with opinions differing from his
on the ownership of semi-automatic weapons. Currier used CBS airtime as
a platform to preach for gun control. At one point during his March 15 Evening
News report from a Texas shooting range, Currier hoped "this
controversy... could signal the beginning of the end of America's love
affair with guns."
Currier concluded by "wondering if
America's romance with firepower is really worth the price." Cooler
heads prevailed at The Wall Street Journal. In a March 24
editorial, the Journal explained that the dispute is "less
a public-policy debate than a cultural clash. The cosmopolitan culture
doesn't know one kind of weapon from another...the bedrock culture may
not like white wine and Brie, but is plenty smart enough to recognize
when it is under attack...it does know what it's talking about
Dubious Source. In the
heat of the Tower debate on the Senate floor, The Washington Post
transformed a single unsubstantiated allegation into a damaging front
page story. On March 2, Bob Woodward wrote of a visit Tower made to
Bergstrom Air Force base in the late '70's. Woodward interviewed Air
Force sergeant Bob Jackson, who accused Tower of having "liquor on
his breath" and "staggering out of the car and up the
steps." He also accused Tower of attempting to fondle female
Woodward claimed to have other
"informed sources," but didn't identify any of them. The very
next day, Senator John McCain contacted several military personnel who
contradicted Jackson's story. Furthermore, Senator McCain discovered
Sergeant Jackson had been discharged in 1978 for "mixed personality
disorder and anti-social and hysterical features."
The CBS Evening News picked up
Woodward's story the night before, but didn't mention the next day how a
U.S. Senator had discredited their coverage. The next day, Woodward
wrote an article over the furor his story had created, but the damage to
Tower's reputation had already been done.
Troute Fishing. ABC's
Dennis Troute expanded the March media frenzy over assault rifles to
include handguns. For the March 14 World News Tonight Troute
revived a five month old study from the New England Journal of
Medicine. Extolling the virtues of Canada's gun control laws,
Troute compared Seattle and Vancouver. To show the value of gun laws,
Troute noted there were 36 homicides with guns in 1988 in Seattle and
six in Vancouver.
According to the NRA, however, the murder
rate among whites was the same for both cities, and the percentage of
gun-related homicides in Vancouver remained the same before and after
implementing gun control. Troute missed both these points. Troute also
failed to note that there are 960 registered handguns per 100,000 people
in Vancouver, while New York City has only 930. By Troute's logic
Vancouver should be a more dangerous place. Not surprisingly, Troute
concluded, "crime would be much more deadly here if guns were as
widely available as they are in the U.S."
No Home for Media Myths. In
an NBC News special last year, Tom Brokaw portrayed the homeless are
"people you know." That's just one of several media myths
proven inaccurate by an article in the March 20 issue of U.S News
and World Report. As Senior Editor David Whitman contended,
"homeless men and women are...sadly isolated from the mainstream of
Another popular media untruth is that
there are three million homeless. Whitman cited a study by the
"nonpartisan" Urban Institute that puts the number at 600,000.
Harold Dow, in a report for the February 16 edition of the CBS News show
48 Hours, complained that "people have jobs but simply
can't afford a place to live." Whitman explained the more prevalent
problem is "about two thirds of homeless adults have at least one
serious personal problem that helps put them on the streets."
Hopefully, reporters will read Whitman's piece and bring a more
rational, fact-based perspective to their coverage of the problem.
Hopeful vs. Hopeless.
NBC apparently thought little of democracy in El Salvador, but the
network was quite impressed by the recent elections in the Soviet Union.
On March 19 Garrick Utley led off Nightly News: "The
results are coming in from election day in El Salvador. Not the vote,
but the dead." NBC reporter Ed Rabel told Utley "the
polarization has already begun." Later on the same broadcast, Utley
grew more upbeat: "Now we want to show you something truly
extraordinary that happened in the Soviet Union today." After the
report, Utley commented: "And who would have ever thought that it
would get this far in the Soviet Union?"
Third-Degree Burnes. On West
57th the night before El Salvador's elections, CBS correspondent
Karen Burnes painted another pessimistic portrait of the nation's
troubles. Burnes began by showing "El Salvador's elite" laying
by the side of a swimming pool and attending a small rally for the ARENA
party. "Their mood is buoyant: they are confident they will triumph
in this presidential election." Burnes then reported the FMLN's
line, sympathetically saying that they have "no choice but to fight
to break out of a system that enriches a tiny minority while the rest
struggle for food and shelter." Her main source was leftist Father
Ignacio Martin-Baro, who predicted more U.S. aid would only bring
"more destruction, more death."
While Burnes concentrated on the FMLN and
their insurgency in the cities, she ignored their assassinations of
mayors and attempts already begun to disrupt the free and fair
elections. The left in El Salvador captured a whopping 4 percent of the
Charlie's Angles. The
morning after ARENA's victory, Good Morning America co-host
Charles Gibson interviewed William Walker, the U.S. Ambassador to El
Salvador. Gibson focused on a single theme: "Given the fact
that...ARENA was actually running the vote in some areas, is this a
meaningful and valid election?" Gibson proceeded to ask if
"the United States [can] work with ARENA," "Is it a
defeat for U.S. policy?" "Is this a democratic force, is this
a group that works for human rights?" "Who really runs the
ARENA party...Mr. Cristiani or...Roberto d'Aubuisson?" Former New
Left leader turned conservative David Horowitz appeared bit later in the
same show. He objected to Gibson's line of inquiry: "Every question
that you asked was designed to delegitimize the ARENA Party, if it wins,
and the election process. I mean, that is the Left mentality which we
wanted to sow: doubt about the good will of America, about its place in
the world, and about its democratic allies."
Television & Morality
Nearly two years ago ABC Nightline
anchor Ted Koppel gave the commencement address at Duke University. For
reasons unknown, Koppel declined Readers Digest's request to print a
condensed version. MediaWatch has come across
a copy of this extraordinary and refreshing calling for a return of a
moral standards. Here are the highlights.
America has been Vannatized as in Vanna
White -- Wheel of Fortune's vestal virgin. Through the mysterious
alchemy of popular television Ms. White is roundly, indeed all but
universally adored. She turns blocks on which a letter is displayed. She
does this very well; very fluidly and with what appears to be genuine
enjoyment. She also does it mutely. Vanna says nothing. She speaks only
body language; and she seems to like everything she sees. No,
"like" is too tepid. Vanna thrills, rejoice, adores everything
she sees. And therein lies her magic.
We have no idea what or even if Vanna
thinks. Is she a feminist or every male chauvinist's dream? She is
whatever you want her to be. Sister, lover, daughter, friend. The viewer
can and apparently does project a thousand different personalities onto
the charming neutral television image and she accommodates them all.
Even Vanna White's autobiography, (an
oxymoron if ever there was one) reveals only that her greatest nightmare
is running out of cat food; and that one of the complexities of her job
entails making proper allowance for the greater weight of the letter
"M" or "W" over the letter "I," for
example. Once, we learn, during her earlier, less experienced days, she
failed to take that "heavy-letter-factor" into proper account
and broke a fingernail. I tremble to think what judgment a future
anthropologist, finding that book, will render on our society. I tremble
not out of fear that they will misjudge us; that they will judge us only
I am increasingly driven to the
conclusion that, on television, neutrality or objectivity are simply
perceived, or at least treated, as a form of intellectual vacuum, into
which the viewer's own opinion is drawn. I find myself being regarded
not as an objective journalist, but as someone who shares most views;
even those that are incompatible with one another. As in the case of
Vanna White (although mercifully to a lesser degree) many viewers
project onto me opinions they would like me to hold.
We have been hired, Vanna and I, to
project neutrality. The problem is that the "Vanna factor,"
has evolved more and more into a political, an economic, even a
religious necessity. On television ambiguity is a virtue; and television
these days in our most active marketplace of ideas.
Let's take inventory for a moment. Sixty
percent or more of the American public, roughly 140 million people, get
most or all of their news from television. What then should we or must
we conclude? Whatever your merchandise, if you want to move it in bulk,
you flog it on TV. Merchants trying to sell their goods, politicians
trying to sell their ideas, preachers trying to sell their gospel or
their morality -- all of these items are most efficiently sold on TV. If
that doesn't scare the living daylight out of you, then you're not
Never mind the dry good. Television and
toilet paper were made for one another.
But let's focus on our national policies;
let's look at our principles -- our ethical and moral standards. How do
they fare on television? We've learned, for example, that your attention
span is brief. We should know; we helped make it that way. Watch Miami
Vice some Friday night. You will find that no scene lasts more than
ten to fifteen seconds.
Look at MTV or Good Morning America
and watch the images and ideas flash past in a blur of impressionistic
appetizers. No, there is not much room on TV for complexity. You can
partake of our daily banquet without drawing on any intellectual
resources; without either physical or moral discipline. We require
nothing of you; only that you watch; or say that you were watching if
Mr. Nielsen's representative should call. And gradually, it must be
said, we are beginning to make our mark on the American psyche. We have
actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. "Shoot up
if you must; but use a clean needle." "Enjoy sex whenever with
whomever you wish; but wear a condom."
No. The answer is no. Not no because it
isn't cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an
AIDS ward -- but no, because it's wrong. Because we have spent 5,000
years as a race of rational human being trying to drag ourselves out of
the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In the
place of Truth we have discovered facts; for moral absolutes we have
substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say
absolutely nothing. We have reconstructed the Tower of Babel and it is a
television antenna. A thousand voices producing a daily parody of
democracy; in which everyone's opinion is afforded equal weight,
regardless of substance or merit. Indeed, it can even be argued that
opinions of real weight tend to sink with barely a trace of television's
Our society finds Truth too strong a
medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form Truth is not a polite
tap on the shoulder; it is a hallowing reproach.
What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai
were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments. Are, not were.
The sheer brilliance of the Ten
Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable
human behavior. Not just for then or now but for all time. Language
evolves, power shifts from nation to nation, messages are transmitted
with the speed of light, man erases one frontier after another; and yet
we and our behavior, and the Commandments which govern that behavior,
remain the same. The tension between those Commandments and our baser
instincts provide the grist for journalism's daily mill. What a huge,
gaping void there would be in our informational flow and in our
entertainment without routine violation of the Sixth Commandment. Thou
shalt not murder.
On what did the Hart campaign flounder?
On accusations that he violated the Seventh Commandment. Thou shalt not
commit adultery. Relevant? Of course the Commandments are relevant.
Simply because we use different term and tools, the Eighth Commandment
is still relevant to the insider trading scandal. Thou shalt not steal.
Watch the Iran/Contra hearings and keep the Ninth Commandment in mind:
Thou shalt not bear false witness. And the Tenth Commandment, which
seems to have been crafted for the 80's and the Me Generation. The
Commandment against covetous desires; against longing for anything we
cannot get in an honest and legal fashion.
When you think about it, it's curious,
isn't it. We've changed in almost all things -- where we live, how we
eat, communicate, travel; and yet, in our moral and immoral behavior we
are fundamentally unchanged.
Jesus summed it up: Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So much for our obligations towards our fellow man. That's what the last
five Commandments are all about.
The first five are more complex in that
they deal with figures of moral authority. The Fifth Commandment
requires us to honor our father and mother. Religious scholars through
the years have concluded that it was inscribed on the first tablet among
the laws and piety toward God because, as far as their children are
concerned, parents stand in the place of God. What a strange conclusion!
Us in the place of God. We, who set such flawed examples for you. And
yet, in our efforts to love you, to provide for you, in our efforts to
forgive you when you make mistakes, we do our feeble best to personify
that perfect image of love and forgiveness and Providence which some of
us find in God.
Which brings me to the First and, in this
day and age probably the most controversial of the Commandments, since
it requires that we believe in the existence of a single and supreme
God. And then, in the Second, Third, and Fourth Commandments, prohibits
the worship of any other gods, forbids that his name be taken in vain,
requires that we set aside one day in seven to rest and worship Him.
What a bizarre journey; from a sweet, undemanding Vanna White to that
all-demanding jealous Old Testament God.
There have always been imperfect role
models; false gods of material success and shallow fame; but now their
influence is magnified by television. I caution you, as one who performs
daily on that flickering altar, to set your sights beyond what you can
see. There is true majesty in the concept of an unseen power which can
neither be measured nor weighed. There is harmony and inner peace to be
found in following a moral compass that points in the same direction,
regardless of fashion or trend.
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