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Tv's Landmark Focus On Philippine Vote Fraud

February 12, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The special presidential election in the Philippines has produced not only deceit, chaos and violence, but also landmark TV in the United States.

It's almost routine now for American TV to monitor global terror and bloodshed. This is the first time, though, that American TV has been this effective as a political watchdog abroad, topping by far its coverage of the 1984 presidential election in El Salvador.

Never before has the camera been a sustained eyewitness to election fraud in another nation.

Charges and countercharges, ballot thefts, disenfranchised voters, government goons, a walkout of official vote counters accusing President Ferdinand E. Marcos of tampering. You could hardly believe what you were watching.

Many of the pictures provided by ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN were exceptional, carrying a hint of deja vu , recalling TV's role as America's electronic voyeur during the civil rights turbulence of the late 1950s and early '60s.

That historic old footage--showing black demonstrators being taunted, chased by dogs, knocked senseless, fire-hosed and rounded up by white Southern cops--contributed to the catalytic process resulting in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other racial breakthroughs.

Those relatively crude pictures held a mirror to America that showed the evils of racism, just as last week's pictures from abroad vividly conveyed the trampling of voting rights in the Philippines.

TV coverage has buttressed fraud charges made by official American on-the-scene observers. Hence, TV may have played a role in shaping America's future relationship with its traditional Pacific ally and strategic partner.

Although the presence of American TV may have been a moderating influence, it could not soften the Marcos-Corazon Aquino election into a genteel tea party.

What the cameras did, though, was witness scenes of election rigging that belied the words of Marcos as he tried using American TV to make his post-election case directly to the American people.

On Friday's segment of CNN's "Cross Fire" program, for example, Marcos denied that his forces had "manhandled nuns and priests"--shortly after CNN had shown nuns who said they were roughed up by Marcos forces.

From Friday on, Marcos was all over American TV, speaking by satellite from Manila, answering accusations of fraud with charges against Aquino. "What kind of evidence do they have?" he demanded Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

For several days, however, the evidence had been on the screen, including remarkable pictures of armed thugs bursting in and attempting to steal ballot boxes at polling places expected to go heavily for Aquino.

Marcos seemed a desperate man in letting himself be lectured to and raked over by American TV interviewers. They ranged from NBC's Tom Brokaw in Manila for "Meet the Press," to Bryant Gumbel in Rio de Janeiro with NBC's "Today," to Forrest Sawyer in New York on "The CBS Morning News."

"Excuse me for interrupting you, but we have such a brief amount of time," Sawyer said Monday, cutting off Marcos when he began rambling. And there was Marcos on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" Sunday, the head of a sovereign nation, being grilled about the election and having his integrity questioned.

Brinkley asked how it was possible that in one province the vote had been announced at more than 13,000 to 0 for Marcos. With a straight face, the Filipino leader replied that he did not find that curious.

Sam Donaldson brought up the old charges that Marcos' self-proclaimed heroism during World War II was a sham that he invented to make himself look good. "I find it degrading to talk about my career. . . , " Marcos snapped. "If you don't want to believe it, don't believe it."

Marcos stayed there and endured the interrogation until the end, though. "It's been a pleasure having you with us," said Brinkley, like a spider politely thanking a fly for stopping by.

As usual with network news, though, there was more to the election pictures than the mere covering of a story. At some points, other considerations inevitably intervened.

CBS probably will be criticized for not sending Dan Rather to the Philippines last week, but on the contrary, it was a wise decision. NBC sent "Nightly News" anchorman Brokaw to Manila, ABC sent in "World News Tonight" anchorman Peter Jennings and they anchored their respective newscasts from there, for no apparent reason except to increase their exposure and impress viewers with their abilities to cover stories in the field.

Whether they can or can't isn't the point. The point is that they weren't needed and their presence only injected an element of celebrityhood into a story that was drawing plenty of spotlight on its own.

No matter the outcome of the election, experts are saying that last week's apparent large turnout for Aquino indicates big change ahead for the Philippines, whether peaceful or violent. Americans are used to seeing individuals die on TV. Now, for the first time, they may be watching the death of a regime.

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