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Obsession, not proportion, still drives television news

May 09, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

History versus hooey.

This week's disclosures about the ruthless and dishonest tactics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy -- as he extended the nation's Red Scare just after mid-century -- evoke memories of him being famously rebuked on TV by Joseph N. Welch.

It was 1954, a time of black hearts and blacklisting in high places, and the occasion was televised hearings linked to McCarthy's charges that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. Army. When he used this opportunity to publicly attack the loyalty of a young lawyer in Welch's firm, the Army's folksy, deceptively mild-appearing special counsel cut him off, with cameras rolling.

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator," Welch began like a preacher to a sinner. "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

McCarthy had a few months left as America's prince of darkness. Yet this stinging admonition, from a Boston trial attorney whose instinct for theater matched the senator's, was a history-turning moment. Combined with Edward R. Murrow's earlier "See It Now" broadcast attacking McCarthy on CBS, it was a savage blow from which the dangerous Wisconsin demagogue would never recover. News accounts gave this story the big blast it deserved.

Today it would share media time with Laci Peterson.

Just as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad -- signifying the fall of his regime and Iraq's capital to U.S. forces -- got less weight on TV in the long run than pregnant Laci Peterson's disappearance in Modesto, and her husband, Scott, being charged with her murder.

It's that kind of media universe, as TV's presentation of news makes it ever harder to separate the essential from the clutter, the significant from the silly, the momentous from the ordinary. It's always been the nature of TV news to render everything equal. Think cards in a Rolodex, 30 seconds of fluff followed by 30 seconds of calamity followed by 30 seconds of car chase leading to 30 seconds of global crisis, as if all were equal in news value. The 24-hour news channels have built on and accelerated this process, however.

Now ABC's Diane Sawyer is no crackerjack journalist. Yet when she appeared with Larry King on Wednesday night to promote her two-hour ABC News special Thursday night detailing a scam that undermined the British version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- yes, two hours of prime time for that -- CNN repeatedly billed her as "the only network anchor to interview Scott Peterson." As if, in more than 30 years in the news business, this was her achievement that would most impress viewers.

That was probably true for King's show, which these days is Laci Peterson 101. It seemed to impress CNN and King, even though Sawyer's Peterson interview was stale news that came before his wife's body was found and he had been charged with murder.

At this point, to preempt angry e-mails charging insensitivity, one is compelled to state the obvious, that the Peterson case is, indeed, newsworthy, and is, indeed, tragic and a deep sorrow for many. A young mother and her unborn child are dead, the husband and father in the dock, and two families devastated. That speaks for itself. Yet how about TV removing those black armbands for once and trying some perspective here instead of lights, cameras, teeming media hordes?

Fat chance. The medium's minions have traveled too fast and too far on this fast track for a U-turn, and taken much of the public with them.

If Lincoln had issued his document that freed slaves in rebelling states in the era of all-news channels instead of in 1863, they would have granted him half the screen, the rest to Laci Peterson's memorial. The discovery of the wheel would have shared time with Scott Peterson's bail hearing. Nero fiddling while Rome burned would have given way to Modesto.

Instead of showing us architects of history, TV encourages carpenters with fast hammers. The result is quickened pulses, impatience as a society that is incompatible with historical perspective.

Just as entertainment shows usually fix all problems before the final credits, so do news programs rev up red-herring scenarios and facile answers prematurely. Peel back the fat layers of coverage and you find news consultants, hired hands with their fingers on the pulse of ratings.

And if ever a case were tailored to this phenomenon, it's this one.

Is there broad interest in the Peterson case? Certainly. But guess who created most of it?

"Why do you think ... the world is so caught up in the ... case?" King asked the only network anchor to interview Scott Peterson.

Sawyer began to answer, stumbled, then gave up and answered by not answering. "We walk up, almost, at parties," she said about encountering Laci chatter everywhere, "and people will now have all the references." Which is a case for attending different parties.

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