YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

Meanwhile, Back at '60 Minutes'


Defining moments, from Diane to Dan . . .

On Monday, "The CBS Evening News" reran a portion of an interview in Belgrade that was aired in full the previous evening on "60 Minutes." The subject was Mirjana Markovic, the influential Marxist academic whose husband, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, has been on the receiving end of relentless NATO air and verbal attacks.

"Seldom, if ever, does she meet with Western journalists and, as far as we know, has never sat down on camera with an American," Lesley Stahl began her introduction on "60 Minutes" Sunday. "But that's what she did this weekend with Dan Rather."

The story? Surely nothing Markovic said. The most powerful microscope could not have detected a speck of news in her statements endorsing her husband and opposing NATO bombing. Instead, the story was something else: That she sat down on camera "with Dan Rather."

This non-news presented as news didn't happen in a vacuum.

It was nearly eight years ago, when Russia was still part of a dying Soviet Union, that ABC's Diane Sawyer had her impromptu interview on the fly with embattled Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin in the Moscow government building known as the "White House."

Network news stars were jetting to Moscow in close formation to witness this turbulence during the last gurgling days of the sprawling Soviet realm. The just-arrived Sawyer and her camera crew were the first outsiders to reach Yeltsin and his comrades, who were armed and barricaded in their makeshift fortress in anticipation of an attack by leaders of a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who would ultimately resign.

Sawyer's fleeting encounter with Yeltsin--who appeared preoccupied and uninterested in schmoozing--lasted just a few thin sound bites, their chat going something like this: How are you doing? Nice to see you. Have a nice day.

Nonetheless, "PrimeTime Live" pumped in the helium, inflating it into a segment that ABC heavily ballyhooed ("Diane Sawyer in Moscow . . . Diane Sawyer is there!") as if its star were MacArthur landing in the Philippines.

This was hardly the first time the TV messenger had become the message, so much of newscasting having risen, brick by brick, on a bedrock of celebrity journalism as a strategy to capture viewers' attention. Yet a line was crossed this time with a brazenness rarely displayed previously, the story becoming not what Yeltsin said--for he hadn't said anything even close to being newsworthy--but that Sawyer had been there, exclusively, when he didn't say it.

Sawyer's brief time with Yeltsin was widely hailed as a great scoop, even though it amounted to a few weightless mumblings compared with his first substantive post-coup TV interview that was to come two weeks later on CNN.

Clearly, this episode was the gateway to a decade in which TV news interviews of prominent figures were to be applauded merely when there was an interview, regardless of it yielding no news. It has happened again and again, the sight of a famous twosome--celebrity journalist and celebrity subject--merely moving their lips on camera considered payoff enough.

In other words, pay attention to the process--the form--not the content.

That was surely the subliminal message of Rather's interview with Markovic. It was so empty that the Associated Press--America's news agency of record--began its brief story on the interview with a lead that could have been written without anyone seeing it: "The wife of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic says there is no ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and Serbs are merely defending their territory."

Like . . . duh!

That's what Milosevic and his supporters--including his wife on an Italian TV talk show last month--have been saying all along. And although Markovic is said to be her husband's close advisor and a political power in her own right, asking her whether Serbians were abusing Kosovo's ethnic Albanians was about like hoping to hear the truth about Hitler's campaign of genocide from his mistress, Eva Braun. Given their source, the answers were predictable.

Some partial questions from Rather, and boiled-down replies from Markovic as expressed through interpreters:

"There are no atrocities committed by Serbs in Kosovo?" the CBS News anchor asked. "No," Markovic replied. "The Serbs are defending their territory."

Not news, coming from her.

"Many witnesses say that the Serbs are doing these things in Kosovo," Rather came back. "I don't believe they did that, and I'm almost sure they didn't do it," she replied.

Not news, coming from her.

"How does this end?" Rather asked. "The decision is not in our hands, but in yours," Markovic said.

Not news, coming from her.

"What about the argument, Madam professor, that the bombing will stop when you, the Serbs, stop killing Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo and stop running them out of their homes?" Rather asked. "But they are not killing them," she argued. "They are not expelling them."

Not news, coming from her.

Los Angeles Times Articles