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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Kidnapers In Lebanon Play 'Host' To Tragedy

July 01, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Nice guys.

Nabih Berri and his Shia militiamen who released the American hostages Sunday could teach a public relations course on how to be a kidnaper and be viewed as benevolent too.

You saw the Amal showmen on TV, at the interviews, at the farewell dinner with the creamy cake. Real backslappers. Real wild and crazy party guys. Real sweethearts. Real softies. Real marshmallows.

With real machine guns.

Who would have predicted such clashing tones and images? There has been more hostility among the networks scrambling to cover the ordeal of TWA Flight 847 than between the hostages and their captors.

Oops! Their hosts .

That's how chief hostage spokesman Allyn Conwell described the kidnapers when he and two other hostages were interviewed at a seaside restaurant last week by ABC's Charles Glass.

"My compliments to the restaurant our hosts have brought us to today," Conwell said.

You could see where all this was going to lead if the Americans had stayed in Beirut instead of being sent to Damascus en route to complete liberation. We would have been calling them guests of Amal by now, instead of hostages.

This bizarre and tragic story put the media in a box and raised critical ethical questions about the coverage. How much could the American press cover without becoming a tool of the kidnapers? Was it possible to end the hostage and media manipulation without ignoring the story? Where did sound news judgment end and irresponsibility begin? There are no easy answers.

When militant Shiites early last week staged an anti-American rally in Beirut, shouting slogans and shaking fists at the camera, the march for the media led all American newscasts. It appeared that TV was going to rev up the nation for revenge.

Yet the Shia Amal was too media-wise to allow that.

Most of the stories and pictures from Beirut during the last two weeks have been benign, seeming almost to pacify America and gain sympathy for the kidnapers.

When Berri wasn't holding his own televised press conferences or giving TV interviews, he and his Amal spoke to the White House through the hostages and their families, used them to make a case for Israel's immediate release of 735 Lebanese prisoners.

The hostages had become pawns. In a remarkable turn of events, the articulate Conwell and other hostages had become the Amal's most effective spokesmen (experts say it's common for prisoners to agree with their captors in a subconscious effort to ensure their own survival). And through them, Berri was competing equally with Israel for the support of the American people.

The networks and many newspapers were calling the hostage ordeal a "crisis." But the TV pictures delivered a different message.

Saturday morning found Cable News Network beaming back some extraordinary unedited footage from the Beirut schoolyard where most of the American hostages were mulling with their captors, awaiting transfer to Damascus by convoy (they would have to wait until Sunday) and another, Syrian, TV show.

Viewing the raw footage for the first time along with viewers, CNN's Don Farmer in Atlanta could hardly believe his eyes. "Guys with machine guns on their backs are moving luggage like skycaps," he said.

Some of the guards embraced their hostages and kissed them goodby. Others stood lookout. More clashing images.

This unreality pervaded the entire hostage ordeal.

Never more so than on Friday's "Good Morning America," which had set up separate audio interviews with Berri in his barricaded Beirut home and with Conwell's wife, Olga, in Cyprus. Host David Hartman ended up interviewing not only Berri and Olga Conwell, but also Allyn Conwell and his fellow hostages Simon Grossmayer and Father James W. McLoughlin.

Hartman did not know the hostages were with Berri until Berri told him on the line. Live except in the East, it was an extraordinary exchange during which Berri and the Conwells and Hartman were able to speak to one another.

"I hope to be with you soon, honey," Conwell told his wife.

"Allyn, are you OK and do you know when you're going to come home?" Olga asked a little later.

"Hold on, honey," Conwell said a little later. "Let me let you speak to Mr. Berri."

Berri addressed her as "Olga"--he was holding her husband captive, yet addressing her by her first name--then assured her, "I will take care for your husband."

Hartman spoke to Grossmayer. Then he spoke to Father McLoughlin. And then he asked him, "Father, would you ask Mr. Berri to come back on the phone, please."

At one point the international operator cut in on Hartman and Berri. "Are you through? Mr. Berri, do you hear me?"

You had to pinch yourself to remember that this was not just another example of old acquaintances reaching out and touching someone a la telephone commercial, and that Berri was not a friend of the family.

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