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HOWARD ROSENBERG

No Repair Is in Sight for TV Blurring : Television: Everything and everyone on the tube these days is starting to look like light entertainment.

January 17, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Curtain up.

Lorena Bobbitt goes on trial for severing her husband's penis, a champion figure skater is under a cloud after her Olympic rival is severely whacked with a metal baton and Bill Clinton plays the saxophone in Prague.

It's happening again, television's blurring and fading, everything merging the way colors bleed together in a washing machine. The result, Norman Corwin has written, is a "contagion," a remote control-zapped cheapening or trivialization of "a whole culture" through TV's portrayal of everything as "piffle."

Layers and layers of complexity equal piffle? The situation, media analyst Neil Postman argues, is not that television is entertaining but that it presents everything as entertainment. In this framework, all of TV is show time, a stage on which comedy and drama, reality and fantasy exist side by side as equal and identical.

Everything is theater.

Or as Frank McConnell, another media observer from academe, puts it, when everything, whether tragedy or farce, is presented as spectacle, the result is confusion. His McLuhanesque summation: "The real and the fictional, the serious and the trivial, become hopelessly blurred, until only the uninterrupted, zombifying carrier wave itself is the 'real' meaning of the transmission."

Blurring. "Dan Rather goes one on one with President Clinton in Prague." That introduction, on a recent edition of "The CBS Evening News," segued to an interview that saw anchorman and saxman continuously framed as a twosome, equals before the camera. Just as Rather and Clinton were in a subsequent interview from Moscow. And as NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and Clinton were in still another interview from Moscow, the traditional line separating interviewer and interviewee wiped away by TV's need to celebrate its own.

Of course you recall actors Brokaw and Rather from their appearances this season with actor David Letterman, who also interviewed Vice President Al Gore, among many other performers.

Blurring. A network newscast shows that consummate stage-crafter Clinton at a town meeting in Moscow urging a youth in the audience to "come shake hands with me. Maybe you'll be President some day." End of story.

Next comes a commercial break, an advertisement for a movie. "The critics are applauding. . . ."

Blurring. You look in on cable's new Television Food Network hoping to hear about, of all things, food. Instead you find comic Judy Tenuta in the kitchen with Robin Leach, doing her greasiest, bluest stand-up material about Roseanne Arnold and First Lady Hillary Clinton, the perpetual foil of entertainer Rush Limbaugh, who also has appeared on Letterman's CBS show, as well as on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Blurring. Kathleen Sullivan, a former network news anchor, morning show host and sportscaster, has a new TV gig touting Weight Watchers, just as the credibility Robert Young earned as kindly old Doc Welby helped him sell Maxwell House coffee.

Blurring. Champion skater Tonya Harding is all over the news as her bodyguard and two others are arrested in connection with the beating of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Although not formally charged with anything, Harding at midweek was labeled "trash" by ESPN's house primitive Jim Rome, and the tease on CNN's "Crossfire" that evening asked rhetorically whether she should be "stripped" of the U.S. Figure Skating Championship she had just won in Detroit after Kerrigan was forced to drop out. In a predictable overlapping of news and entertainment, moreover, Harding has become the butt of guilt-presuming jokes by late-night talk show hosts. Her life, their punchline.

Kerrigan's own press conference was carried by CNN during a recess in the Bobbitt trial, which it has been airing live while running intermittent printed messages of other news such as, "Clinton ends busy day in Russia with dinner in Moscow."

Blurring. She's demure and respectful, answering questions with "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am." She speaks softly with a Spanish accent. Her black hair tumbles to her shoulders.

Instead of Puerto Rican Maria in "West Side Story," though, this is Equador-born Lorena Bobbitt, on trial for cutting off the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, with a carving knife.

The title of this spectacular? "CNN Live: Lorena Bobbitt Trial." As opposed to the William Kennedy Smith trial, the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beating trials, the Menendez trial and--bank on it if charges are filed--the coming TV-studded Michael Jackson trial.

Lorena Bobbitt's temporary insanity defense rests on the jury believing that her husband repeatedly beat and raped her (he denies it) to the point that she went uncontrollably berserk. She claims the penis incident followed one of those rapes.

"His right shoulder was on my face, my mouth. . . . I said I didn't want to have sex. . . . He started to pull down. . . . He force himself into me. . . . He was hurting me. . . ."

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