The Line Between `Info' and `Tainment'

NBC News is groaning with apologies these days.

First, "Dateline NBC" publicly apologized for gilding an exploding General Motors pickup truck to make sure it burst into flames picturesquely enough. The network thereby succeeded in the improbable feat of turning GM - which a jury had just assessed $105.2 million in damages for the family of a man who had been killed in a truck crash - into a sympathetic victim.

NBC was still reeling from this episode when, on Feb. 24, Tom Brokaw went on the air to apologize for yet another deception. In a recent "Nightly News" report on destructive timber overcutting in an Idaho forest, the network had used footage of "dead" fish from another forest, and had depicted as dead fish that were merely stunned.

In its folly, NBC has generated the latest in a wave of verisimilitude scandals. But the abuse that NBC has taken, and deserved, is not the last word on the deep and abiding failures of television news.

Consider first that it is normal to pose TV pictures, and the margin between posing and falsifying is not always clear.

Enslavement to dramatic and slick pictures is an invitation to blur that line. The fighter-bomber that takes off into the sunset before dropping its presumably smart bombs, the professor invited to sit in front of the bookcase that signals his expertise, the president who signs the same bill over and over, the interviewer who knowingly nods, to provide "cutaway" shots, while the interviewee sits still - all are orchestrating their images at the behest of producers. Part of the extraordinary power of Geor ge Holliday's famous video of the Rodney King beating lay in the fact that it was not posed.

Moreover, while pictures seldom lie, they focus. Every focus, every cropping, is a choice that frames and shapes the spectator's sense of reality. The photos of Scud damage to Israeli homes during the Gulf war showed less damage than actually done - because Israeli censors, seeking to keep from inflaming their own public, prevented photographers from backing up and showing the extent of the damage.

There's something misplaced, therefore, about the magnitude of the current controversy. Shocking it is, but what would be more deeply jarring to contemplate are the routine network artifices. In an image-drenched culture run by bottom-line analysts, reality is routinely hyped; and news organizations are waltzing cheerily into the mire of infotainment.

Once a competitor has run with a story, ethical considerations are, shall we say, deferred. And so, for example, CNN is still defending its live coverage of last year's Gennifer Flowers press conference on the grounds that "60 Minutes," the night before, had already certified the story - a story that ABC had made a story.

In the great game of competition for rapt viewers, television is growing under the weight of Gresham's Law. Cheap TV news is driving out the more valuable. "Cops," "Inside Edition," "A Current Affair," "Geraldo" and the like have lowered the floor. The segment producer for the "Dateline NBC" GM report was himself a graduate of a year at "Inside Edition," where he had gone from ABC's "20/20."

Standards sink because the rapture of gaudy pictures is linking the low road to the high. Even scrupulous broadcasters are fastening bells and whistles - theme songs, coming attractions, glamorous sets - onto the homely evening news in a frantic effort to halt fingers before they punch buttons on remote controls.

IN this atmosphere, it is no wonder that we keep stumbling into misrepresentation scandals.

We see them in TV and magazines alike. National Geographic once used the latest electronic equipment to jam the Egyptian pyramids closer together to fit them onto its cover. TV Guide used Ann Margret to body-double for Oprah Winfrey.

ABC News took flak for dramatizing a document transfer from the accused spy Felix Bloch - never indicted, by the way - and CBS's Connie Chung, wife of Maury Povich of "A Current Affair" fame, lost her prime-time news magazine for making a habit of reenactments.

Each scandal is followed by a rectification meant to signal that the border between news and performance is once again adequately patrolled.

We all want to believe that behind the pictures lies the truth, and this is why the networks' border patrols are going to have to toughen their missions. For the claim to verisimilitude is central to the news's prestige and its perks - its press passes and invasions of privacy alike. Seeing is supposed to be kept believable.

So, NBC has a new policy - "unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories."

The deeper scandal about TV news, however, is less what is seen, but rather what remains unseen. Many momentous stories of recent years were barely represented, let alone misrepresented, because the TV news organizations didn't have the imagination to tell them.

Because TV is falling all over itself scaring up in-your-face pictures, it gave less than ample attention to intricate stories like the S&L thefts and giveaways, and the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro dealings with Saddam Hussein - especially when there might have been time to do something about them.

The current alarm about the budget deficit is unaccompanied by explanations of how it grew - not least, through those very S&L maneuvers that went largely unattended for years, even through the entire 1988 presidential campaign.

Indeed, without occasioning much protest from the networks, television news during the Gulf war handed itself over to the Pentagon, letting the minders shoo reporters away from B-52 bases and supply them with smart-bomb videos; after the endless reruns even a skeptical viewer could not begin to grasp that 92 percent of all the bombs dropped on Iraq were the old-fashioned dumb variety. There was evidently no simulation, just endlessly recycled Air Force footage.

In this world, exploding banks and bombs can do far more damage than exploding trucks. So, in the difficult task of telling complicated stories about criminal acts that blow up in all our faces, why automatically rule out reenactments? French television has tellingly used them - and famous hosts like Yves Montand - to explain complicated economic issues in hour-long specials. PBS's "The Civil War" used period music and written documents to tell truth.

ERROL MORRIS directed skits to great effect in the splendid film "The Thin Blue Line" to show, from various points of view, how a murder might have taken place - a fictionalizing device that deprived Mr. Morris of an Oscar documentary nomination.

Yet Morris's might-have-beens were vastly more illuminating than TV's what-you-see-is-what-you-gets.

Let newsgatherers be straightforward about the fact that they use depictions, then, for no one should tolerate active misrepresentation.

But in all the alarm about infotainment's blurring of lines between news and amusement, let's not assume that when we get straight pictures we have put aside artifice or gotten the big picture we badly need.

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