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With a Chance to Go Deep, TV Fumbles

August 03, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Republicans were getting hipper by the moment. President Clinton and the Bushes were getting it on. WWF superstar "The Rock" was getting told off by party foes of raunchy TV wrestling. Former President Ford was getting well.

"And our thoughts are with him right now," said a deeply caring KCBS morning news anchor John Overall on Wednesday. "And our thoughts are with Jim Thornton, who is keeping up with traffic."


When looking back on this week's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, though, what I may recall most vividly is MSNBC's snippet of an interview with Condoleezza Rice.



Rice, who addressed GOP conventioneers from the podium Wednesday, is George W. Bush's foreign policy advisor. She's friendly, smart and eloquently explicit. That equals good television, and you'd think good news for MSNBC, the 24-hour cable network that NBC operates with Microsoft.

Although offering glints of light in the grayness of convention coverage, Rice's fleeting chat Wednesday with news anchor Brian Williams and Chris Matthews, host of CNBC's "Hardball," was as much a tiny blip on TV's radar as was her area of expertise.

Making the interview a symbol of our most powerful medium's indifference to the rest of the globe.


Agree with her or not, Rice was a formidable presence, someone to listen to. If Bush can be judged by those on whom he relies for counsel, in her case at least, draw your own conclusions.

Matthews led the way in shooting Rice pointed questions about topics ranging from her African Americanism in GOPdom to worldwide AIDS, all of which she answered incisively and without hesitation. Not as if she had rehearsed her answers or was inflexible, but as someone who knew her stuff and was confident of her positions.

What had she thought when seeing those famous TV pictures of Somalis gleefully dragging the body of a U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993? "You should be careful about getting involved in others' civil wars if you don't know what you are doing," she answered immediately, before elaborating clearly. She was starting to cook. She was starting to roll. It was informative. It was insightful. It was fascinating.

And much too brief.

Thank you and goodbye, for just like that, Rice was gone, supplanted in this rigidly formatted MSNBC milieu by the partisan yada yadas of Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich in one of those fruitless, by-the-numbers media dialogues that have helped make the Philadelphia gathering and its coverage such a drag.

"Where is the beef in this convention?" Matthews promptly asked Kasich, as if that issue were not as stale as the rhetoric inside the arena.


Squandered was an opportunity to provide a greater sense, through Rice, of where Bush, as president, would take the nation globally. MSNBC didn't care, apparently, because it knew that much of the nation didn't care, surveys showing foreign affairs to be a low priority with Americans this election year.

And probably every year, given how little they know of the world beyond their borders and how little they learn of it from TV, the information medium of choice whose xenophobia (CNN being an exception) is inseparable from the nation's.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg thing.

Rarely does TV cover global stories that show Americans' interests intersecting with those of other cultures. It instead skitters reactively from hot spot to hot spot, foreign news rarely working its way into newscasts minus a coup, war, air crash, natural disaster or anything else creating the pictures necessary to entice viewers.

It's a prescription for ignorance and isolationism, and what made extensive coverage of global millennium celebrations by ABC, PBS and others so refreshing. And what makes ethnocentric TV coverage of the Olympics so frustrating.

When the 2000 Summer Olympics open next month in Australia, bank on NBC wrapping its telecasts in Old Glory and ignoring the achievements of some of the world's best athletes who don't happen to reside in the U.S.

No wonder so many Americans believe that visiting recently erected microcosms of Paris and Venice in Las Vegas matches seeing the real thing. Although a few more words from Condoleezza Rice on MSNBC would not have fixed that, it would have been a gondola ride in the right direction.

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