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SMALL SCREEN TAKES ON THE BIG ISSUES--AGAIN : The Pope's in the West, Bork Is in the East and TV Is in Its Heaven

September 17, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

"God's law" and man's law, film at 11.

As Los Angeles was receiving Pope John Paul II this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee was receiving Judge Robert H. Bork, President Reagan's controversial nominee to the United States Supreme Court.

In surprising ways, TV pictures of both events evoked related themes and images.

Take birth control--still a sizzling church issue, with many Catholics rejecting Papal policy. While local TV showed the Pope leaving St. Vibiana's Cathedral Tuesday morning, network TV and CNN showed Bork opposing on legal grounds a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Connecticut statute banning the sale and use of contraceptives.

The Papal and Bork appearances were also strikingly alike in their dominant maleness.

Some Catholics bitterly complain about doors being closed to females in the church. And there was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate Caucus Room, charging that there was no place in Bork's America for women or blacks.

Kennedy's hyperbole was arguable. As TV pictures showed, moreover, his characterization of a Borkian state applied to the Senate Judiciary Committee itself. The panel's 14 members are white males--empowered to judge fitness for a high court that includes only one member of the nation's female majority.

TV coverage of both events also offered similar insights into the power of pictures. What a difference a face made.

While local TV commentators were remarking on the pontiff's kind, compassionate face and loving eyes, Bork provided a Scrooge-like, foreboding contrast. He often wore the rigid expression of a man who takes no prisoners, his humorless, scowling face refuting his occasional charm and wit in responding to questions.

Meanwhile, the Pope's visit to Los Angeles also dramatized the merging spiritual and technological worlds.

There was nothing in the Pope's visit more spirited and visually spectacular than his satellite hook-up in the Universal Amphitheatre with Catholic youths in three cities. The joyously singing, hooting, hand-clapping throng--numbering about 12,000 and including a Los Angeles contingent--created a sort of rock-a-Pope celebration that lacked only Dick Clark.

Thanks to TV, moreover, viewers can now watch this media-minded pontiff pray . . . up close and personal. The pool camera gave Southern California a remarkable close-up shot of the Pope in deep, grimacing prayer in St. Vibiana's.

But enough is enough. A couple of TV commentators got carried away and began speculating about what the Pope was praying, giving us TV's first instant analysis of John Paul's inner thoughts. One commentator also said that the Pope's grimace reflected intensity. You could have applied a better subtitle: "Boy, have I got a headache."

Ditto for those overdosing on the coverage. There have been times this week when KCOP Channel 13 was the lone local commercial station not doing live Popevision.

Coverage of the Pope's 7.2-mile motorcade on Tuesday became a sort of media curiosity, with local stations--each with its own Catholic cleric as special analyst--posting personnel along the parade route to report as the Popemobile passed in front of the various pool cameras. But this was a one-float parade, resulting in identical pictures of the Pope waving, and virtually identical commentary on his waving, being repeated by each reporter.

For wonderful small moments, nothing topped Harold Greene's KABC-TV Channel 7 live interview of three children designated to greet the arriving Pope. Two of them repeated word for word the carefully rehearsed speeches they delivered to the Pope. It was charming and priceless.

In the big, really, really big category, nothing topped the extent of the Pope particulars on KTLA Channel 5. How could it? There was no avoiding the Pope on Channel 5, its trumpeted 48 hours of continuous coverage spewing into a panoramic sprawl of awesome proportions, with movable, interchangeable parts. At one point, the anchor team of Larry McCormick and Father Michael Manning gave way to a second anchor team of Hal Fishman and Father Virgil Elizondo.

It was obvious that if the Pope hiccuped, Channel 5 would have it live, in both English and Spanish, followed by a half-hour of analysis. Channel 5 did promise not to televise the Pope as he slept at night, probably only because he was unavailable.

Sometimes the continuous coverage worked, sometimes not (it was a toss-up who got more airtime Wednesday, Stan Chambers or the Pope). There were times when Channel 5 was clearly strettttttching just to fill, as when it hauled out a retrospective of religious movies ranging from "Ben Hur" to a warbling Debbie Reynolds as "The Singing Nun."

That was somehow fitting in view of what was to come--the Pope's televised appearance before media and entertainment leaders near Universal Studios. His speech urging responsibility probably cost him a three-picture deal.

The only news at this event, in fact, was made by Lew Wasserman, chairman of Universal's corporate parent, MCA Inc. In introducing the pontiff, Wasserman revealed that he and other industry leaders spent many sleepless nights wondering if they were doing right by the public. Credit the crowd of 1,500 with holding back the guffaws.

There were more spectacular events, including the Pope's televised evening Mass at the Los Angeles Coliseum. That was one, at least, that Irwindale didn't get.

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