Gathering Around the '90s Hearth
People were riveted to their TV sets during major events this year
WASHINGTON — PERHAPS never before have so many news events unfolded before so many eyes in raw, unedited form as they did in 1991.The furrowed brow of CNN correspondent Charles Jaco formed symbolic bookends to a year of dramatic live television news: * January 1991. Flinching nervously in anticipation of Iraqi Scud missile attacks, Jaco stood day and night beneath the Saudi Arabian sky and narrated from the US side in the Persian Gulf war ... as it happened. * December 1991: Jaco, on a sun-drenched Palm Beach street, narrated hour after hour as the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith unfolded before viewers. * In between, live coverage of the attempted Soviet coup and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings attracted viewers at all hours of the day. While disparate in importance, communications experts say, all of these events captured American attention in equally intense ways because viewers experienced them in real time versus hearing reports about them. Though critical of many aspects of instant reporting, their reviews of where it leaves the American public are largely positive. "Television creates a sense of community because we define ourselves through shared experiences and that, this year, was viewing the Gulf war and the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "The sense of who we are is defined out of that, and it's too bad it isn't the solution to the health-care crisis or how to solve unemployment." "Mega stories stop traffic, and with so many in one year, it could be true [that this was an unprecedented year]," says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs a Washington think tank that monitors television news. Indeed, traffic stopped in offices, student unions, television showrooms and even in living rooms on Saturday nights throughout the year as clutches of viewers watched alternately tedious and dramatic coverage of momentous world events as well as intensely private affairs made momentous by public scrutiny. "This has been an exceptional year [in the number stories covered live continuously]," agrees Steve Haworth, CNN vice president for public relations. But, he adds, this kind of coverage certainly is not new. CNN has been preempting its basic 24-hour news schedule for continuous live coverage of all kinds of events for a decade. For example, it continuously followed the 1985 TWA hijacking odyssey, as well the 1987 rescue-drama of Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old who fell in a well in Texas. A year like 1991 with a national communal television event to mark almost every season, is rare now, observes Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University. "There's a lot more media and television fragmenting the audience than there used to be, so very rarely does the mass audience exist anymore [as it did in 1991]." "There is very little going on year in and year out [to warrant this kind of live coverage]," says David Brinkley, the NBC newsman, adding that the visual needs of television limit the number of events that could command non-stop live coverage. "You can't see the recession," he says, but a camera could focus on many aspects of the Gulf war, the Soviet coup, or the dramatic - if "salacious events told of by talking heads in the Hill-Thomas hearings and the Smith rape trial. But the command this year's coverage held over the public's attention was a coincidence of revolutions - global and technological, say experts. "Part of [the coverage] was a function of world events and not an artifact of television. But part of it was the increasing penetration and domination by television," says Rosen. Further, the coverage has raised not just the issues attendant to the events themselves but a whole set of controversies surrounding the television medium itself. Debate between the media and Pentagon officials tainted the war coverage with censorship and has yet to settle the terms by which war coverage should be permitted in the future. One unanswered question from the war, for example, is: Was it dangerous to allow live coverage of the bombing of Baghdad to be beamed across the world, including to the enemy? In the Smith trial, many questions of taste and fairness were raised. For example: Was it fair to protect the identity of Smith's accuser - with a fuzzy blob over her television image - while openly showing Smith, who was ultimately acquitted of the charges? But the larger question is just what good the unedited broadcasting of news events does for the public. "It restores citizen competence," says Rosen. "The media were irrelevant in that it didn't matter what [commentators] said, the public felt very competent to form their own opinions." On the other hand, he says, the fascination with the rape trial and sexual harassment hearings is developing an "addiction" to the legal adversarial process. "It's polarizing and creates the illusion that the clash of utterly biased accounts produces the truth. But arriving at consensus is more difficult," Rosen says. "These combative rituals make people small-minded, one-sided." But, he says, "it would be a mistake to assume the intensity of interest as a degradation of democracy or culture, to see the appetite for these as wholly debased. Ultimately it's a desire to be part of the public world." Ms. Jamieson agrees, noting "we've been alarmed in the last decade because the public isn't interested in public events, it is." Transferring that interest to other, perhaps less visual, public matters is the more important question, she says. It is important too, she adds, to help the public understand when these visual events are the "side show, deflecting what we ought to be talking about." She notes that it wasn't until months after the war, for example, that stories about US troops killed by friendly fire appeared - and then the stories were broken in the print media, not on TV. While viewing the Hill-Thomas hearings and the Smith rape trial as purely matters of titillation that are likely to continue to get increasing air time, Lichter sees a corresponding "quiet change of great magnitude" in Americans' interest in foreign affairs. "Through the mid-'80s it was a common scholarly complaint that there was no interest in foreign news, but three out of the top five stories [on the networks] in the past two years have been foreign because the technology was there [to broadcast it], " he says. "Technology is changing the whole public discourse and internationalizing it."