`Buying the Bomb' reveals the gap between print and TV journalism
You seldom get as straight a chance to lay TV journalism beside newspaper journalism, and compare them for yourself, as you do in Buying the Bomb (PBS ``Frontline,'' Tuesday, March 5, 9-10 p.m., check local listings). Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour M. Hersh undertook an investigation for ``Frontline'' into the strange case of Nazir Ahmed Vaid, who was deported last October for attempting to buy and ship to Pakistan a device used for triggering nuclear weapons. At the time, it was agreed that Mr. Hersh would also write a story for the New York Times -- a paper for which he used to work, and one that publishes much of his material -- before the show aired.
The idea was that the Times could help the program build an audience.
Nobody knew it then, but Hersh was onto a story of bizarre convolutions, one that showed that Pakistan flagrantly and calmly went about the business of buying materials in the US to build a nuclear bomb, even as it piously maintained that it had no nuclear armament ambitions. The story also shows incompetence, at least, on the part of federal authorities, and quite possibly a deliberate effort by the Reagan administration to sweep the whole event under the rug because it wants to maintain friendly relations with the third-world country.
All of this becomes abundantly clear in the Feb. 25 front-page story Hersh wrote for the Times. The article, which takes up almost a full page of Times space, goes about in a no-nonsense way the business of laying out the facts uncovered by the reporter's exhaustive investigation. It makes only passing reference to the fact that PBS would air a documentary on the subjet. It gives no credit to ``Frontline''; and that fact reportedly does not sit well with the program's producers in Boston.
``They're sort of whining and moaning up there in Boston,'' Hersh observed in a Monitor interview. He went on to add that the show gave ``much more drama'' to the story, because ``the camera was everywhere.'' Besides, he pointed out, there are ``a lot of nuances you can't get on the air, particularly the Washington stuff.''
Publicly, ``Frontline'' people are doing no moaning at all. ``One has a twinge of regret that we didn't get more credit,'' muses David Fanning, the show's executive editor.
In fact, it would have been hard for the Times, even if it had been so inclined, to give credit to ``Frontline,'' because the two pieces of journalism are so far apart from each other in purpose, methodology, and effect.
What we have with the ``Frontline'' episode of ``Buying the Bomb'' is a visual record of Hersh's investigation, a dramatic presentation of the case he makes. ``This is a film about my investigation into the true identity of Nazir Ahmed Vaid,'' Hersh says at the beginning of the documentary; the language may be more accurate than he intended. THE BOMBTHE BOMB
Like so many investigative TV documentaries, this one concerns itself at least as much with the feel of the hunt as it does with the catch it yields. It shows television's weakness as a sheer messenger of information and its strength as a visual recorder of things.
Many television news documentaries restrict themselves to a third-person presentation of the facts in a case. This one does not. The story is told in a journalist's notebook style that allows Hersh to step aside from time to time and, sotto voce, comment on the value of the comments from his last interview subject and characterize the motives of people who have spoken on camera.
Hersh is also allowed to make a small speech about his journalistic credo and to comment about the progress of the story.
None of this prevents ``Buying the Bomb'' from getting the basic story across. The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation one gets with some of the figures in the case provides a valuable opportunity to judge the testimony for yourself. Hersh obviously has the goods here, and he has them while everyone else in the journalistic community and the government is caught napping.
The question is, where does a citizen go -- to television or to newspapers -- to get these goods that Hersh has so meticulously assembled? That question is answered in this case with inescapable finality. Citizens cannot rely on television to tell them the whole story, although the medium can be useful in bringing home the visual reality of a story.
There's no escaping the power of television in letting you read the face of an official as he lies, point blank.
Still, the fact that Hersh had to go to a newspaper to get ``nuances'' (and a lot more than nuances) into his story because one couldn't get someone to talk on camera makes the point clearly: television cries out for entertaining images to keep the viewer glued to the screen. We are shown in this documentary a piece of film, for instance, showing Hersh walking along with Mr. Vaid asking him for an interview, footage that is only there to provide visual interest in the midst of too many talking heads. We also see an awful lot of footage of the dogged reporter tramping through government hallways and across parking lots.
All of this is necessary to sustain visual interest. None of it matters much in the larger question of what Vaid was doing here and why we should be interested.
Walter Cronkite used to lament that he could only squeeze as much information into a half-hour television newscast as one could find in a quarter of the New York Times's front page. Here, one gets a third of the information from an hour-long documentary as can be had from an article that takes perhaps 15 to 20 minutes to read. In addition, the information in the Times can be studied and reread, paragraph by paragraph, whereas the TV documentary flashes by in a beguiling moment.
None of this seems so alarming, unless you consider that more and more Americans are getting more and more of their information from television, and that, from the looks of it, they will know less and less.