The Line Between `Info' and `Tainment'
NBC News is groaning with apologies these days.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
First, "Dateline NBC" publicly apologized for gilding an exploding General Motors pickup truck to make sure it burst into flames picturesquely enough. The network thereby succeeded in the improbable feat of turning GM - which a jury had just assessed $105.2 million in damages for the family of a man who had been killed in a truck crash - into a sympathetic victim.
NBC was still reeling from this episode when, on Feb. 24, Tom Brokaw went on the air to apologize for yet another deception. In a recent "Nightly News" report on destructive timber overcutting in an Idaho forest, the network had used footage of "dead" fish from another forest, and had depicted as dead fish that were merely stunned.
In its folly, NBC has generated the latest in a wave of verisimilitude scandals. But the abuse that NBC has taken, and deserved, is not the last word on the deep and abiding failures of television news.
Consider first that it is normal to pose TV pictures, and the margin between posing and falsifying is not always clear.
Enslavement to dramatic and slick pictures is an invitation to blur that line. The fighter-bomber that takes off into the sunset before dropping its presumably smart bombs, the professor invited to sit in front of the bookcase that signals his expertise, the president who signs the same bill over and over, the interviewer who knowingly nods, to provide "cutaway" shots, while the interviewee sits still - all are orchestrating their images at the behest of producers. Part of the extraordinary power of Geor ge Holliday's famous video of the Rodney King beating lay in the fact that it was not posed.
Moreover, while pictures seldom lie, they focus. Every focus, every cropping, is a choice that frames and shapes the spectator's sense of reality. The photos of Scud damage to Israeli homes during the Gulf war showed less damage than actually done - because Israeli censors, seeking to keep from inflaming their own public, prevented photographers from backing up and showing the extent of the damage.
There's something misplaced, therefore, about the magnitude of the current controversy. Shocking it is, but what would be more deeply jarring to contemplate are the routine network artifices. In an image-drenched culture run by bottom-line analysts, reality is routinely hyped; and news organizations are waltzing cheerily into the mire of infotainment.
Once a competitor has run with a story, ethical considerations are, shall we say, deferred. And so, for example, CNN is still defending its live coverage of last year's Gennifer Flowers press conference on the grounds that "60 Minutes," the night before, had already certified the story - a story that ABC had made a story.
In the great game of competition for rapt viewers, television is growing under the weight of Gresham's Law. Cheap TV news is driving out the more valuable. "Cops," "Inside Edition," "A Current Affair," "Geraldo" and the like have lowered the floor. The segment producer for the "Dateline NBC" GM report was himself a graduate of a year at "Inside Edition," where he had gone from ABC's "20/20."
Standards sink because the rapture of gaudy pictures is linking the low road to the high. Even scrupulous broadcasters are fastening bells and whistles - theme songs, coming attractions, glamorous sets - onto the homely evening news in a frantic effort to halt fingers before they punch buttons on remote controls.