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When Brutal Reality Hits Close to Home


I watched a student die.

Or maybe he was already dead. It was difficult to tell as he lay on the ground, bloodied and still, with someone bent over him. The picture wasn't clear because it was night and the cameraperson was shooting without light.

The student had died in Beijing, 6,000 miles away, as I sat in my home, secure and comfortable, watching on television. Then the phone rang, and I forgot about the student.

Clashing realities.

The extraordinary last several days have evoked a multitude of ironies vis-a-vis TV. The very notion that we can watch--and hear--in our homes as turbulent history plays out in China is only one of the realities almost too boggling to comprehend.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 12, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Steve Futterman, an NBC / Mutual Radio reporter covering Beijing, was identified by the wrong first name in Howard Rosenberg's column last Tuesday.

There was also the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who not only revolutionized Iran, but also, in effect, late-night TV on ABC.

The foreign leader who epitomized evil and rigidity to much of the world was also the catalyst for the most positive and visionary development in late-night TV in years. It took this close-minded cleric from across the globe to inadvertently open the minds of American TV to new possibilities. Amazingly, this man who so vehemently repressed freedom of speech would inspire a TV program that widened dialogue.

It happened in late 1979 when Iran's taking of American hostages triggered a much-watched nightly program, "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," that later evolved into "Nightline," the series that would become an institution and launch the brilliant Ted Koppel as a news megastar.

Those late-night updates of United States citizens held in Iran created what one ABC News executive later described as an unexpected "windfall," revealing the existence of a significant late-night TV audience for a serious discussion of the day's big stories.

Ten-year-old memories of thousands of marching Shiite Muslims chanting and shaking their fists for American TV dissolve into video of the present. From America held hostage to China--and sanity--held hostage.

There was irony here too.

Back to back on "CBS Sunday Morning," for example, Americans could see democracy being crushed in China and democracy being learned in the Soviet Union.

The footage from Moscow was almost surreal, as Charles Kuralt narrated Soviet TV coverage of last week's Congress of People's Deputies, the country's eclectic new legislature. Here was Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev apologizing for not limiting speeches to five minutes. One of those speeches, shown on national TV, was from a truck driver angrily criticizing Gorbachev's wife, Raisa. Gorbachev also was asked to justify having a summer home.

Contrast that with the violent crackdown on anti-government dissent in Beijing.

Although martial law restraints have not stopped ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN from getting a relatively small number of gripping videotape and still pictures out of China, Beijing, by necessity, has been a largely radio-style story, with the networks airing live phone reports from reporters on the scene. And, in a mixed-media oddity of this story, ABC radio and CBS radio essentially have been carrying the radio-style reports of ABC and CBS TV reporters. Hence, TV is doing radio, and radio is using TV to do radio.

NBC/Mutual Radio has been staffing the coverage independently, however, and its man on the Beijing story is Mike Futterman, who checks in with his family in Los Angeles regularly.

"I was talking to Mike on the phone from Beijing Saturday morning, and while he was describing all the things that were happening there, our little boy was watching Pee-wee Herman on TV," said Futterman's wife, Kinga. "It was incredible. Life goes on."

While his 3-year-old son was immersed in "Pee-wee's Playhouse," Futterman was telling his wife about the "horrifying experience" confronting him in China, he said in an interview from Beijing.

"We never expected such madness," said the 36-year-old Futterman about China's weekend bloodshed. "Basically, it's been a shooting exercise. What's horrible is that the soldiers were shooting indiscriminately. We've seen average people who had nothing to do with the demonstrations shot while watching television in their homes. You couldn't help being in the middle of gunfire. I was on the outskirts of the city and there were bullets flying around. A BBC journalist was returning to the hotel when the man in front of her was shot dead and she tripped over his body. At nighttime, any time you go on the streets, it's virtually a deathtrap. The network cameramen have just been incredible. They are the most courageous people I've ever seen."

Even for Futterman, however, the realities of Beijing and America may soon merge. Because CNN and Armed Forces Television are available in his room at Beijing's Palace Hotel, Futterman has been able to watch some American TV there, and hopes to see at least some of tonight's opening game of the NBA championship series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons.

TV offers such contrasting levels of reality.

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