Watching TV Wednesday night was like cruising Van Nuys Boulevard or getting flagged down by rouged-up, purple-lidded Hollywood hookers strutting in platform heels and wiggling their tushes in hot pants.
Just hours before its gentlest soul, Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," died of cancer, TV's noisiest hucksters were waving a menu featuring Dan Rather and villainous Saddam Hussein competing for attention with "preppy killer" Robert Chambers on CBS and accused wife-killer Robert Blake on ABC.
As for Mr. Rather's neighborhood, CBS gave you not only his ballyhooed Baghdad chat on "60 Minutes II," but also his daylong victory lap that ended fittingly with him being debriefed on Hussein by ... Bruce Willis.
News and show biz were never closer.
"By the way," Rather told Willis, subbing for ailing late-night host David Letterman on CBS, "you know Saddam Hussein has tattoos. He shares that with you. But back to the substance of things.... "
As for that, Willis wondered about Hussein: "Did he crack any jokes or anything?" No, Rather replied. "He could use some of David's writers."
After buckling under the weight of this hard-news baggage, Willis appeared relieved when it was time for his first guest to go. "Dan Rather, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "We'll be right back with Carmen Electra."
Just as Rather would be right back with more of Saddam on CBS newscasts this week, and with Iraq sidebars and anecdotes for Larry King on CNN on Thursday night, his own marquee now as bright as the Iraqi dictator he had interviewed just days earlier in Baghdad.
How bright was that? When Hussein told Rather on "60 Minutes II" that he wanted to debate President Bush on TV, the weary looking anchorman briefly lighted up like a slot machine pouring out coins. Saddam told Rather he wasn't joking.
"Who would moderate this debate?" Rather asked.
"You, Mr. Rather," Saddam said through an interpreter.
The debate proposal was pure farce, of course, and Bush has already turned it down. Nor was this week the first time a TV messenger became a big chunk of the message, so much of newscasting having risen, brick by brick, on a bedrock of celebrity journalism as a strategy to capture viewers' attention.
Wednesday night was classic media symbiosis, as well, with TV at once using and getting used. It was Hussein hoping that Rather's interview would soften his image and CBS hoping that dribbling it out bit by bit, as it did over several days, would massage the Nielsens in a crucial ratings sweeps month. It was Chambers hoping to redefine himself on "48 Hours Investigates," which hoped to capitalize on his notoriety upon his recent release from prison after serving 15 years for the slaying of Jennifer Levin. And it was Blake getting a chance to plead innocent through his tears in front of a national audience, and ABC knowing he'd be a major draw on the first day of a preliminary hearing to decide if he will be tried in the death of Bonny Lee Bakley.
Wearing his orange prison suit for his taped talk with Barbara Walters in the Men's Central Jail, Blake was guilty Wednesday only of chewing up the furniture. The former "Baretta" star wept often without urging from ABC's own doyenne of tears, who seemed pretty shattered at times herself.
Blake: "You think I'm a monster, too."
Walters: "No, no, Robert."
Blake: "You don't understand."
Walters: "Oh, Robert, I do."
As news, it was over the top. As soap opera, it sang.
Although any critique of actors is subjective, you'd have to say that Blake didn't live up to his role, but that Hussein did. Blake looked much more deranged than Hussein, who could have passed for a conservative banker as he sat opposite Rather in a conservative three-piece suit, all cool and composed while motioning with a pen. It affirmed that cameras do, indeed, lie, whether operated by Americans or, in this case, by Iraqis under an agreement that also had them supplying the interpreters and taking possession of the interview tape before relinquishing it to CBS.
The cameras humanized Hussein. This benign softy, this gentle giant a destroyer of humanity? Impossible. After all, Hussein said with a straight face: "We believe we should respect the humanity, even of our enemy."
Although Rather's questions were pointed, he missed some opportunities. For example, did Hussein "agree in principle with the attack on 9/11?" Hussein did not answer directly, and for whatever reason -- perhaps the restrictive format and awkwardness of double translations -- Rather did not press him.
Were Rather and CBS News somehow being anti-American by interviewing Hussein in what may be the last gurgling days of his regime? Hardly. It was a legitimate interview that any news organization would have jumped at if given the opportunity.