Trial By TV Took Soaps' Slot

MY first day as a CBS Washington correspondent in 1953 I covered a hearing of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-hunting Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A hapless USIA official was being grilled by McCarthy, dripping with sarcasm, about some youthful left-wing writings. The official, like many, was hounded out of his job. I didn't realize I was witnessing the inauguration of congressional trial by television. There had been the inquisitions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but not live on TV.

Television entered the arena in the 1950s. ABC, unable to compete with CBS and NBC in soap operas, decided to ''throw away'' daytime hours by airing the McCarthy hearings. By such media decisions is history made.

Part of the public became addicted to them. McCarthy rode high, but TV can be a fickle friend to a powerful chairman. Eventually, in his arrogance, he stumbled, and was wounded on television by the devastating plea of lawyer Joseph Welch, ''At long last, sir, have you no shame?''

Watergate in 1973 may well have been the high-water mark of the era of congressional trial by televised investigation. The three networks had not planned continuous live coverage of the Senate hearings until John Dean's defection from the White House made clear that the Nixon presidency was at stake.

For two weeks, we at CBS were deluged with complaints from soap opera afficionados, furious at being left high and dry with some unresolved climax. Gradually these were replaced by calls accepting the hearings as their new soap opera. One caller asked me to dismiss a boring witness and bring back ''that nice John Dean with his lovely wife.''

In the Iran-contra hearings of 1987, the substance of Reagan administration misdeeds was lost as Oliver North, decorated Marine hero, defied a pompous array of legislators and proudly told how he had lied for his country. That may well have signaled the beginning of the end of the heyday of congressional trial by television.

Now, hearings have sensational murder trials to compete with. The warmed-over Waco and Whitewater hearings lacked central heroes and villains. Senate chairman Alfonse D'Amato and House chairman Bill McCollum were not recognizable characters like McCarthy or Ervin. And by the end of the Waco hearings, the spotlight was back on David Koresh rather than the government as the guilty party.

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