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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Koppel Special, 'Nightmare' on Dangers of Propaganda

September 13, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

From news reporting and news manipulation of yesteryear to television of today: The links and profound differences are noted in the arrival of separate programs this week.

First (at 10 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) comes ABC's "Television--Revolution in a Box," a Ted Koppel special chronicling the technological changes--including wee videotape cameras called camcorders--that have drastically altered not only the nature of TV journalism but also global politics.

The second program is "The Nightmare Years," a four-part miniseries based on famed American journalist William L. Shirer's vivid memoir of Germany's turbulence in the decade leading to World War II.

Starring Sam Waterston as Shirer and Marthe Keller as his Austrian wife, Tess, the handsomely mounted, two-hour episodes air at 5 p.m. and repeat at 7 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday on cable's TNT network.

Watching them may be a load. Directed by Anthony Page, adapted for television by Bob Woodward and Christian Williams and written by Ian Curteis, the miniseries is disjointed and cumbersome. It's also flawed as docudrama, injecting fictional embellishments and taking enormous liberties with Shirer's 1984 best seller in detailing the huge obstacles he faced in trying to report the evils of Hitlerism. Those obstacles were a wall of Nazi propaganda in Germany and a wall of apathy and ignorance in the United States, the latter perhaps caused in part by the propaganda.

This universal theme--the role that media and governments play in expanding and constricting reality like an accordion--is emphatically addressed by TNT's version of "The Nightmare Years" and neutralizes some of the program's shortcomings.

The attempted media manipulation by Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment included control of the printed press, radio, publishing and films. This effective Nazi method of shaping thought by strangling free expression becomes a striking point of comparison with the technological innovations of today, which can be used for the same purpose.

Although generally positive, these innovations can be used to distort or shade reality as well as illuminate, Koppel notes tonight.

There he is on the screen, speaking from Gdansk, Poland. Or so it seems.

"I have never been to Gdansk," Koppel reveals. "What you're watching is the product of something called the Ultimatte . . . which creates a composite of two separate video elements."

The Ultimatte is still too expensive and complicated for general use. So Koppel demonstrates something a little cheaper, a $2,000 home-video camera that can achieve much the same result as Ultimatte.

"Manipulating or altering reality is now within the budget of almost any political group in this world," Koppel says.

But so also is the ability to keep reality alive through TV.

Koppel points out that Poland's Solidarity movement survived with the help of secret videotapes that were shot with camcorders and played on VCRs. And western TV has provided Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with tiny video gear for coverage of Intifada incidents to which professional media aren't allowed access.

This global proliferation of the camcorder--the low-cost, lightweight videotape camera that may become the Brownie of the '90s--makes almost everyone a potential TV journalist or stringer. Sales will total 7.5 million this year, Koppel says.

Although home movies are their primary use, the increasing abundance of these little gizmos (which are as light as two pounds) opens up just about everything to the TV camera. TV news crews can't be everywhere, but amateurs with camcorders seem to be. Hardly a newsworthy event occurs--ranging from natural disasters to outbreaks of violence--where at least one camcorder isn't present.

Koppel ticks off some examples: the gun turret explosion aboard the USS Iowa; the crash of Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa; the mid-air collision of Italian jets in a flying exhibition over West Germany.

Increasingly, professional news organizations from major networks to local stations are making use of this amateur footage, which is at once a boon and a peril. With its lens looking a bit like a gun barrel, the typical camcorder resembles a weapon. And it can be just that, a means for someone with a hidden agenda to manipulate or exploit the very medium to which he is contributing.

As Koppel notes, camcorders are a weapon of terrorists who stage home movies of hostages for distribution to the news media. And they can be the weapon of an ordinary citizen with a hidden motive. Who's to know the purpose of the camcorder operator, whether he has intentionally distorted reality through omission or some other means? In their frenzy to beat the competition, picture-lusting news organizations increasingly run the risk of airing amateur footage whose authenticity has not been adequately checked.

On the other hand, Koppel says, these ever-present camcorders have become the "nemesis" of despots, recording events that otherwise would be blacked out to the rest of the world.

What a two-edged sword. Returning to "The Nightmare Years," Goebbels' propaganda machine would have been even more effective with access to today's video technology. But the camcorder would have been a powerful counter-weapon as history's secret witness to unthinkable criminality in the 1930s, perhaps providing television pictures that the rest of the world could not have ignored.

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