ABC's 'If You Were the President': dangerous lesson in antiterrorism?

If you were the president of ABC, would you allow "If You Were the President" to air on ABC next Thursday? One of the major surprises of the television year has been the escalating strength of ABC's magazine show "20/20," which started out as a tasteless, exploitative copy of "60 Minutes" and has turned into one of the nation's favorite shows. In last week's Nielsen ratings, "20/20" ranked No. 8, close on the heels of third-place "60 Minutes." NBC's "Brinkley Journal" lags far behind.

This Thursday, "20/20" plans to air a special edition of the magazine show: "If You Were the President" (ABC, Thursday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings).

In its own convoluted way, the program, which purports to be a routine crisis-management exercise in a hypothetical case of terrorism in New York City, could unfortunately prove to be a blueprint for a real threat by a terrorist organization. Thus TV could once again be accused of promoting or, at least indirectly encouraging, criminal actions while it apparently tries to prevent it by dramatizing it. In addition there is the questionable practice of naming specific groups in these purely hypothetical cases.

This special edition of "20/20" is a step-by-step portrayal of the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington of how a real crisis-management team would handle things if a terrorist group commandeered a tanker, held the crew hostage, and threatened to use explosives and release the tanker's oil, causing a huge explosion in the harbor which would do major damage to New York City. The terrorists demand $1 billion and recognition of a new Palestinian state.

In the 28 hours before the terrorist deadline, the viewers are shown how the government's crisis team would handle the incident in obviously condensed, but seemingly accurate, detail -- until the very moment, 15 minutes before the deadline, when the decision to negotiate, stall, attack, or give in to some of the demands is placed in the hands of the president.

"What would you do if you were president?' the program asks.

The overseer of the production for ABC was Av Westin, ABC News vice-president for program development. I asked him the other day if he and ABC president Roone Arledge had considered the dangers of inherent in presenting a how-to program of this sort.

"We considered that," he said, "and decided to go ahead. We were so wary that we even convinced Georgetown to change the terrorist threat so that it would not include anything that was not already common knowledge.

"We do not feel we are breaking ground for potential terrorists. There have been other crisis-management games by other universities, and this one, like some of the others, will be put on tape and distributed to governments all over the world to help them in case of future terrorist threats. We simply wanted to show the American people what would be happening behind the scenes, and the Georgetown people were being as realistic as they could be."

What would ABC's Mr. Westin do if he were president of the United States?

"I would attack and capture the ship, rather than give in to any demands. I would take the hard line that you can't deal with terrorists."

Isn't it true that many people believe that the hard, no- negotiation line would be the line taken by President Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig?

Westin: 'I can't say, but my personal view is that we should be firm."

Westin is a newsman noted for his firmness. He has put his own solid stamp on many ABC news programs, although he is no longer involved in ABC's "World News Tonight," which topped CBS' Rather news a couple of weeks ago but fell back into second place last week. Why does Westin believe the ABC evening news program is doing so well -- being consistently in second place when a few years ago it placed a poor third?

"It is more lively, in more places, than the opposition, and is often perceived as covering the news better. Anchor man Frank Reynolds may even be more of an avuncular substitute for Cronkite than anybody else."

Why does Westin, who supervises "20/20" and is also involved in developing a new Sunday morning news show for ABC, believe that "20/20" is doing well after its disastrous start (in which he played no part)?

"Our formula is to assume zero interest and zero knowledge on the part of our viewers on any story. Hugh Downs's role is very specific -- he brings the viewer from zero interest and knowledge to a plateau from which our correspondents take over and the pieces take off.

"Within every piece there is a shorthand history section so the viewer knows how we got to where we are. And there are other voices -- critical comments by people involved in the same sort of schemes. In addition we have new features like the 'Letter From . . .' feature in the Janet Flanner style."

Does Westin believe that the success of both "60 Minutes" and "20/20" means that viewers are in for a wave of "reality" programming?

"Reality programming has always had intrinsic strength. But anything on TV requires good presentation, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. If the presentation of reality shows is effective, people will definitely watch them more and more."

Will there be more full-hour editions of "20/20" in the future?

"Certainly. Within the magazine format it is perfectly legitimate to have a special edition."

But one last try: Doesn't he agree that a broadcaster has a responsibility not to air a show that might inflame disturbed people to emulate illegal or immoral actions?

Mr. Westin agrees, but says, "I think it is a good thing for the American public to know that government leaders have at least been sensitized to this sort of thing. It is somehow reassuring."

Maybe. But one of the first things I would if Im were president would be to discourage television shows from making entertainments out of s erious terrorist threats.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.