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Reagan Slips On Seajacking

October 11, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The most astounding TV during this week's seajacking episode starred that great communicator, President Ronald Reagan.

It demonstrated the extreme peril--but also value--of live TV and shooting questions at a President who is apt to shoot back answers that he hasn't thought through.

The scene was Chicago, where Reagan departed from his jet Thursday morning and immediately stopped briefly for one of those on-the-run impromptu press conferences that give his advisers cardiac arrest.

The network was NBC, which interrupted its West Coast feed of "Today" to show the shouted question-and-answer session.

The subject was the fate of the four Palestinians who had hijacked an Italian luxury liner and surrendered after killing an American who was among their 511 hostages.

Armed with a prepared speech in front of a TV camera, Reagan has few equals. Left to his own devices, though, he can be a disaster.

And he was.

Responding to sharp questioning about the four hijackers, whose whereabouts were unknown after they had surrendered to Egyptian authorities, Reagan ambled and rambled. He bogged and fogged. He bumbled and stumbled. He was inarticulate, confusing and sounded uninformed.

Then came the question about the promise of Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat to prosecute the hijackers if they come under his control.

Yes, Reagan said, that would be fine with him if Arafat "believes their organization has enough of . . . of . . . of a national setup . . . like a nation, that they can bring them to justice and carry this out . . . they can do it."

That was a shocker, as NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw immediately noted afterward, because the United States does not recognize the PLO as a sovereign state. So Reagan's reply seemed to conflict with his own Administration's policy.

Sure enough, Reagan later issued a "clarification," saying that he opposed the PLO putting the hijackers on trial and that he meant to say that he favored the PLO turning the hijackers over to a "sovereign state."

Which is exactly what he did not say.

The televised interview imparted a scene that could never be fully captured in print. It showed a President who was seemingly muddled about some areas of a volatile incident that had occupied the White House for more than two days.

Two questions: How could Reagan have become so confused about something so pressing? And should NBC and other networks have aired the President's comments, knowing his tendency to misspeak at times like this?

I can't answer the first question, but the answer to the second question is a clear "Yes!"

It's important for the nation to see all sides of a President, not just his carefully managed public persona. The Chicago Reagan was not the Reagan of the orchestrated public appearance, but it's a side of Reagan that the public should see, one that many reporters who regularly cover him see all the time.

The Chicago incident seemed even more of a jolt because coverage of the luxury liner hijacking had been so low key.

No pictures, no crisis.

The level of TV excitement over the pirating episode has been greatly reduced compared with the frenzy over the June hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

This time, TV had few options. Newscasters were almost forced to put the incident in proper perspective. That was because the 51-hour hijacking ended before the mediajacking could begin.

There have been competing stories, moreover: the baseball playoffs and the deaths of two major actors, Yul Brynner and Orson Welles. Even terrorism--which threatens the lives of more than 500 hostages, including 16 Americans--is no box-office match for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Besides, a captured ship on the high seas offered no pictorial potential and no chance for the kind of daily prisoner parade that typified the June hostage episode. Good! If the hijackers had been more media savvy, as one expert noted, they would have provided for pool TV coverage on board.

That other parade, meanwhile--of hostage families, present and past diplomats, politicians, Middle East experts, terrorism experts and just about everyone else with an opinion or ax to grind--also was initially held to a minimum.

Even Henry Kissinger was nowhere to be found. Not immediately, anyway.

For the most part, the major networks and Cable News Network initially were left only with rumors about the identities of the hijackers, the location of the ship and the fate of the hostages.

ABC's Peter Jennings was close to the mark Wednesday in jesting about the "blame and the counterblame and the disinformation and the propaganda" that awaited viewers on the evening news.

The family of Leon Klinghoffer, the New Yorker murdered by the hijackers, was on TV early Wednesday before getting word of his death.

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