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Just Plain Folks 'N' Folkniks Summit

January 01, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Following the Orange Bowl, the Global Bowl.

The scene is KING-TV in Seattle where Phil Donahue is zigzagging through an American audience, carrying a microphone as if it were an extension of his hand. In the front of the studio is a very large TV screen showing an audience of Soviets in Leningrad and their microphone man, Vladimir Pozner. The Americans are talking to the Soviets and vice versa. They are communicating. They are relating. They are discussing. The gap between them is narrowing.

Don't hold your breath.

This is "A Citizens' Summit," the latest of a number of spacebridge TV programs linking Americans and Soviets via satellite, and where they will lead no one knows. We do know that this one, at least, has led to an 8 p.m. (or thereabouts) timeslot tonight following NBC's Orange Bowl telecast on KNBC Channel 4.

Spacebridges are intended as TV's equivalent of the Vulcan "mind meld," where Spock is able to tap into the thoughts of other persons or species, no matter how alien. In the United States, at least, they reflect a hopeful populism and idealism, a feeling that if the common peoples of opposing nations could circumvent their rigid governments and speak to each other one-to-one, there would be reduced tensions in our time.

There are simultaneous interpretations for both sides in "A Citizens' Summit." But there's no knowing how much is lost or distorted in the interpretation, or whether the technology of the telecast interferes with the dialogue.

Better to be in the same room, speaking the same language. Failing that, however, we shouldn't become blase about global communications spectaculars intended to promote understanding.

Underwritten by KING, the Documentary Guild and the Soviets, "A Citizens' Summit" is the most commercial spacebridge yet, thanks largely to the participation of the popular Donahue. The syndicated program was taped Sunday, then edited into hour and two-hour versions and fed to individual stations throughout the nation.

It also will be telecast on Soviet TV with "absolutely no censorship whatever," according to Pozner, a Kremlin spokesman who frequently appears on American interview shows. It should be noted, however, that Americans and Soviets have conflicting definitions of "censorship." In fact, they conflict about a lot of things, as "A Citizens' Summit" shows in its two-hour version on Channel 4.

It's obvious that we speak different languages, and that doesn't refer only to Russian and English.

An American man notes the relative lack of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. A Soviet man, alluding to the United States, replies: "Freedom of speech is a great thing, but if no one listens to that freedom, what is the point?"

An American woman asks if Soviet women who work outside the home must still be responsible for housework. A Soviet woman replies: "We have the best possible conditions to ensure that Soviet women can work in peace."

An American man asks about the Kremlin's nuclear intentions. A Soviet woman replies that the Soviets have promised never to strike the first blow. "Can one fail to trust such a state?"

The Soviets hit American faults and the Americans hit Soviet faults. Unlike the Soviet audience, significantly, the Americans acknowledge their nation's imperfections.

Donahue notes that even as he speaks, picketers are outside the station protesting a decision to exclude relatives of Soviet dissidents from the Seattle audience. And there on the screen is a live picture of the protesters.

Several members of the Seattle audience allude to American deficiencies. "It's not as free here as people would like to make you think," says an American woman. A man in a Green Beret uniform protests Sylvester Stallone's hawkishness: "He wishes to speak for people like me. But I know the reality of war." The same man equates America's Vietnam War with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and urges opposition to "the wrongness of war" by either side.

But the Soviet audience acknowledges only American "wrongness."

And when an American asks for reaction to the Soviets' infamous shooting down of a Korean jet liner, it is Pozner the Kremlin spokesman who fields the question, not a member of his audience.

Marilyn O'Reilly, who has had vast experience in selecting audiences for Donahue's own syndicated series, chose the Seattle group and helped pick the Leningrad audience.

Are some of the Soviets KGB plants? Kremlin mouthpieces? "How can we show you that we're not all from the secret police?" a Soviet woman asks American skeptics. Most of the Soviets look as ordinary as the members of the Seattle audience. They don't resemble the Soviets of "Rocky IV" or the Soviet buffoons in our TV commercials. Nor, in fact, does the Seattle audience resemble the Americans in our TV commercials.

Are some members of the Soviet audience afraid to criticize their government on TV for fear of reprisal? Would we really expect them to tell us if they were?

Take "A Citizens' Summit" for what it is, a gawker's delight above else. So that's what they look and sound like.

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