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Tuning In The Global Village : TV a Star Player on the World's Political Stage : Ignoring national boundaries and ideology, it influences the course of events it covers.

October 20, 1992|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So far, however, the overwhelming body of evidence shows that, time and again, the intrusion of television has strengthened forces of democracy.

East Germans watching their countrymen on West German TV newscasts driving happily to freedom across the Austria-Hungarian frontier in the late summer of 1989 generated enough domestic pressure to break down the Berlin Wall three months later.

Those pictures of Germans dancing on the wall ignited the flame of revolution in Prague, where citizens rose up eight days later, and, before the end of the year, in Bucharest, where Romanians overthrew their dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

"More than anything else, what television does is change the time scale of a political crisis," said Ralf Dahrendorf, warden of Oxford University's St. Antony's College. "You can't go into a crisis with a seven-day plan, because television will whip opinion and shorten the entire time line."

When it hasn't catalyzed victory for democracy, television has made life tougher on freedom's oppressors, as China's hierarchy discovered when it assessed the diplomatic damage caused by television pictures of the Tian An Men Square massacre.

Political scientist Von Sydow claims that global television also acts as a preventive medicine of sorts, heightening public awareness and making it harder for nations to galvanize public opinion needed to launch armed conflicts.

"(Global) television helps people see issues more clearly and understand them for what they are," he said. "They won't be drawn in."

Not everyone agrees.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt argues in his memoirs that television can warp an unfolding crisis, whipping public opinion to emotional and moralistic overreactions and making it extremely hard for governments to remain cool.

He cited as an example the Middle East hostage crises of the 1980s, in which satellite hookups permitted live, intensely emotional interviews with American hostages. The interviews placed added pressures on the Ronald Reagan Administration to cave in to the captors' demands.

Immediately before and during the Gulf War, CNN was also heavily criticized by some who claimed the network had been reduced to the role of messenger for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

For others, however, it underscored a new era of what has been dubbed "teleplomacy" in which leaders watch and talk to each other--even as they prepare to square off.

"This massive flow of information is intrinsically neither good nor bad," Dahrendorf said. "But it does fuel our basic emotions and makes the political decision-making process volatile and unpredictable."

Amid this debate, two facts remain unchallenged: Television has changed forever the way politics is conducted, and it will continue to do so.

By the end of the century, there will be more stations transmitting more information than ever before, and more people will be able to receive it.

Many believe the trend should be welcomed.

Concluded Von Sydow, "If everything else were constant, we'd be far worse off today without television."

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