Live from the Hearst mansion

BY the time Patricia Hearst was kidnapped in 1974, I had given up the romantic idea that I might one day return home to Atlanta and perhaps become Georgia's first black governor. Like many other new college graduates, I wanted to change the world. I wanted the power to create a society with no Vietnam war, no racial discrimination, no slain Martin Luther King, no assassinated Kennedys. No hunger. No poverty. No fear. It was the beginning of the Age of Aquarius - or so we were told - and many people felt as I did.

But along the way I got hired by a talk radio station, and it seemed to me, at 23, that the news media might be a shortcut to the power I thought I needed to create a better world. I watched the switchboard light up in response to my pronouncements and I fell in love with the sound of my own voice. I began to hallucinate about how I might use this power to improve the world.

When I found out later that I had gotten into broadcasting by accident - the radio station was in danger of losing its license unless it hired a black reporter/talk-show host - I decided to make the most of the situation. After all, a world was out there that needed changing.

Two years later, I landed a fat job as a television reporter in San Francisco, just as Ms. Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

By this time, the world had changed very little, but I finally had enough money to buy a trench coat. And at 25, anyone looks good in a trench coat. So the assignment editor sent me and my trench coat to the Hearst family home in Hillsborough, Calif., and each night, on live television, I would say something like, ``The mood here is tense.''

Well, it was. But how would you feel if your 19-year-old daughter had just been kidnapped and 200 reporters were outside your door?

As far as the Hearst kidnapping was concerned, we in the press were part of the problem, not the solution. Everyone now knows from Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty that the presence of the instrument used to measure an event changes the event simply by being there. In our pursuit of the story, in our relentless effort to record and measure the event, we added to the confusion.

In their depraved way, Patty's kidnappers seemed to understand this. They accused us of caring more about profits and headlines than the welfare of the people. And for a while, by threatening to execute Patty unless we printed and broadcast their ``communiqu'es,'' the SLA managed to get the better of us. We filled the airwaves with as much revolutionary rhetoric as the SLA could dish out, all in the name of keeping Hearst alive. In the long run, the SLA probably got as much air time for its message as Michael Dukakis and George Bush did.

But the SLA failed to change the world, just as I had failed to change it. And on the night the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Los Angeles police blew up the house where most of Patty's kidnappers had been hiding out, the TV ratings went through the roof. Our whole news team had been mobilized to cover the story, and the next day the program director at the TV station posted a memo in the newsroom congratulating us all for the overnight ratings increase. That memo ended with, ``I wish we could have a live shoot-out like that every night.''

I think I realized then that the media were never going to change the world. I was mistaken to think they could, just as the SLA had mistakenly thought it could carry off a revolution by abducting an heiress and blackmailing the press.

What happened during those years was nothing less than urban warfare, and as Gertrude Stein pointed out long ago, a war does not accomplish anything: It only demonstrates what has already been accomplished. The story of Patty Hearst and the SLA only demonstrated that millions of people could passively watch a live shoot-out on television as if it were an episode of ``Hill Street Blues.''

Not much has changed in the years since Hearst was kidnapped. Hunger, poverty, and fear still exist. The war in Vietnam is over, but people relive its tragedy in films and in the national dispute over Nicaragua, as if the presence of something terrible is necessary to remind us that we really are alive after all.

Now Hearst is back again - as a movie. But I'm going to pass on this one. The real thing was enough for me. I've decided that maybe Henry David Thoreau was right. Maybe you can't change the world without first changing yourself. At any rate, I haven't a thing to wear to a movie about Ms. Hearst. I haven't owned a trench coat in years.

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