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TELEVISION & RADIO | TELEVISION HOWARD ROSENBERG

When no news is big news

May 05, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Atop the Calendar copy desk

I'm standing here, surrounded by thrilled Los Angeles Times copy editors, to thank them for editing this column announcing that I have nothing to announce. Nothing other than the tide has turned and the major mistakes and misspellings in my column have ended, but that there is still work to be done, for typos will continue to appear.

This is historic, for I am the first TV critic to write a self-serving fantasy about saying absolutely nothing of note while standing atop a newspaper copy desk in downtown Los Angeles. And I can tell from the adoring faces of young copy editors, who have been coached to cheer my every word, that this is a big boost for their morale and a day they will not forget.

In other words, the mood here is one of optimism tinged with enthusiasm colored by buoyancy marked by joy despite the possibility that what appears evident, obvious and irrefutable is merely illusory.

Which is why TV is covering this column live.

Yikes!

Amazing, isn't it? Watching CNN's patsies do giddy cartwheels on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln for a couple of hours prior to President Bush's arrival there Thursday evening affirmed how easy it remains for the White House -- any White House, regardless of party -- to command attention and manipulate the major media.

Light the flame, the moths will come. As they have since the invention of media stunts, even those less bold and imaginative than this one.

Other majors joined CNN at sea Thursday, of course, and Bush's address would be beamed live also by the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS and just about any other call letters that came to mind.

The president's message: Major combat in Iraq had ended. Which is what the White House had advised the media a day earlier that he would say. And also what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had declared in Afghanistan hours earlier.

Which meant there was no real need to repeat it -- except for dramatic effect in front of cameras -- and that doing so would not constitute news.

Except that Bush would be the rare president to make a speech on a moving aircraft carrier, and to boot, a carrier returning to an emotional welcome in San Diego after active duty in the war on Iraq. To say nothing of a president arriving in the co-pilot seat of a Navy jet and debarking for cameras in a green flight suit. A former pilot in the reserves, he reportedly had even taken the stick himself.

Get out! It was brilliant.

So brilliant that a day later CNN's Carol Costello had upped Bush to "commander in chief of the free world," which must have been news to rest of the free world.

Would Bill Clinton's White House have gone for the same brass ring as Bush? Absolutely. In fact, he gave a speech on a carrier at sea in 1993. And Al Gore, had he been elected president? Count on it. Self-promotion is Paragraph 1, Article 1 of the politician's manifesto.

White House planners knew that no one would be able to resist this photo op for the ages, with Bush greeted euphorically by the sailors he had sent to war, and even sleeping over before jetting back to California. Although the timing of his speech (9 p.m. in the East) disrupted network prime-time schedules, moreover, it gave him powerful lead-ins from CBS' "Survivor" and NBC's "Friends."

And speaking of friends....

"The president is a former pilot so he knows exactly what he's doing up there," crowed CNN's Kyra Phillips from the deck. What he was doing was making photo-op history.

And as the president strode off after landing, CNN's Miles O'Brien added: "I tell you, that's the fighter pilot's strut."

More likely, the strut of someone knowing he'd succeeded in using TV to send a missile whistling across the bow of Democrats hoping to topple him in 2004. As many are noting, Thursday provided a cornucopia of flattering images for Bush campaign commercials. Not that he wasn't sincere in his remarks to sailors and everyone else tuning in, but when opportunity presents itself, you take it.

As he did Friday when the all-news channels covered live his lengthy address touting his embattled economic package before an effusive throng at United Defense Industries in Santa Clara. As Bush spoke, he was paired split-screen with pictures of sailors debarking happily from the Abraham Lincoln in San Diego.

Take that, Democrats.

Their opportunity, such as it was, came in a Saturday night debate at the University of South Carolina that ABC News televised live and excerpted Sunday morning on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." How meaningful was it? Nine candidates were crowded into 90 minutes like hobos in a boxcar. You do the math.

The Democrats were barely a footnote compared with the Bush spectacle, which was all they deserved to be as participants in one of those pointless shallow exercises that typify national political campaigns.

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