JUST as the black mineworkers in South Africa were throwing in the towel and going back to work after their three-week strike, there appeared on the opinion page of The New York Times what I think is a rather poor suggestion. It was the suggestion by a senior network producer that the American television networks pull their news teams out of South Africa.
I understand the rationale: The South African government has introduced laws that hobble the access and performance of foreign newsmen in that country. Therefore, goes the thesis, the American networks and the South African government are conniving in a kind of censorship that makes the South African regime look better than it should. The networks cannot shoot film that shows the security forces moving in, or blacks being harrassed. Therefore, continues the thesis, the networks should stop playing the government's game and consider leaving.
This view, it seems to me, highlights one of the current deficiencies of television news - the conclusion that if you cannot get dramatic film of some violent or brutal event, you cannot effectively communicate a story of wrongdoing or human injustice.
True, Pretoria's press rules may have barred television from capturing violent scenes during the miners' strike. But the strike's significance is the flexing of a fledgling black union's muscles. There are nuances to be explored. By going back to work did the black union lose? Or did it, by shutting down the gold mines for a significant period, show the potential strength of the black labor movement - possibly as an alternative to a racial bloodbath?
Serious TV news organizations surely have more of a responsibility than chronicling daily violence. They have an obligation to probe the depth and significance of what is happening and to devise innovative ways of explaining this to viewers. Even with current restrictions, surely the networks were better informed by having their correspondents and camera crews in South Africa during the mineworkers' strike than if the crews had been pulled out? The challenge, even without dramatic film, is to devise ways to hold the viewing audience for a few minutes while the significance of the story is conveyed to them. That ought not to be beyond the capacity of the bright and creative people in charge of television news.
During many years as a foreign correspondent I spent a good part of my time circumventing censorship either explicit or implicit. Even in a country where there is no formal censorship you know there are lines, sometimes gray, over which you step at some peril. You know that if you cover a certain kind of story in a certain kind of country you are probably going to be kicked out and your effectiveness for your news organization will be badly impaired. You make case-by-case judgement calls. You do the best you can to tell the story's substance without compromising your integrity and that of your news organization.
Sometimes, the punishment for telling the truth is a little more onerous. In earlier years in South Africa many correspondents, myself among them, were under surveillance, had their telephones tapped, and were under more or less continuous threat of expulsion. I have spent brief periods in detention in such cheerful places as Indonesia, and such less-cheerful places as Guinea. Correspondents like Nicholas Daniloff have spent far longer in detention in such harrowing places as the Soviet Union.
But until you do get kicked out, it seems irresponsible to me to give the censors, and the dictators, and the book-burners the victory by walking voluntarily away from their problem-countries and covering at second-hand the stories they want suppressed.