TV images and true North

All sorts of unresolved issues are still bobbing about in the wake of the Iran-contra investigation. Most concern questions of important but passing detail - who said what to whom, and when it was said. Others deserve more lasting attention: The role of covert operations in a democracy, the need for trust between the executive and the legislative branches, the requirement for oversight in a world of ideologies. But one major question has received only minor attention. It has to do with the role of television. How would this investigation have been different if it had not been televised?

Look, first, at the dilemma that arose for many thinking people as Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony unfolded. On the one hand is the feeling that what Colonel North did was simply wrong. It can't be squared with our highest ideas about the ethics of a democratic society. You don't lie to Congress. You don't set out to obstruct justice. You don't manage the nation's foreign policy out of a tiny office using Swiss accounts and shredding machines.

On the other hand is the impression created by the colonel himself. A lone ranger against a gray-suit bureaucracy, he called forth great sympathy. He took on the system and (to judge by the opinion polls) won handily. Self-possessed, articulate, confident, sure of his own beliefs, he nevertheless came off as respectful, patriotic, and sincere.

How can that be? How can someone who runs roughshod over the institution at the heart of democracy - the legislative body of elected representives - win such a place in the public heart?

Cynics would answer that the public so distrusts Congress that anyone who beats it is a hero. That simply won't wash, especially in the light of the orderliness, respectfulness, and intelligence with which this congressional committee has handled itself.

The real answer, I think, lies in the tension between the verbal and the visual media. The former is the place where ideas get aired and concepts analyzed. The latter is the place where images are created and personalities exalted. The verbal media - newspapers, magazines, and radio - forced us to think about the underlying significance of North's ideas. From them we got the sense of someone doing wrong. The visual media let us read the face and study the gestures of the man who held these ideas. On it, we saw someone who looked trustworthy.

Why trustworthy? In part because the visual imagery connected us up with a whole kit-bag of symbols - the neatly pressed uniform, the erect posture, the trim haircut, the earnest gaze, the grave tone of voice. These images have no power of their own. They work because of their heritage - the ways in which illustrators, filmmakers, and television producers have typically used them. This particular set of symbols fits into a tradition best exemplified by John Wayne movies and Norman Rockwell illustrations. The symbols, in other words, come to us already loaded with strongly positive charges. On television in particular, they are almost always used to create characters we're supposed to hold in high regard.

North and his lawyer apparently knew that - and knew, too, that if North could add to the visual symbolism an impassioned verbal plea for the rightness of the contra cause, the overall effect would be to overwhelm and isolate the few statements in his testimony that the public would find offensive. What's surprising is that the congressional committee appeared not to know that. Had the committee been bent on ``getting'' North, the way forward would have been clear: Hold the hearings in public but off camera - an option they later entertained but voted down when Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter took the stand.

Was this, then, all show? Was North simply a consummate actor, manipulating the symbols for his own ends? I doubt it. Because of the television close-ups - making his face actually larger than life on most TV sets - the American public subjected him to intense visual scrutiny. That's one virtue of television: It's not impolite to stare at it, the way it would be impolite to stare at a face in real life at such close range. Mere play-acting - unless tightly scripted, as in cinema - simply can't survive that kind of scrutiny for hour upon end. We could disagree with his report. But we had to credit his sincerity.

And what, then, about the dilemma? Is North a hero? Or have we been bamboozled by a medium that overplays surfaces, underplays words, and elevates personality above ideas? History will have to be the judge.

Of one thing, however, we can be sure: Television is here to stay, and this is not the last time we'll be pulled in two directions by the ``Ollie effect.''

A Monday column

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to TV images and true North
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today