American Television's Transient Cast Of Heroes and Victims

AT 6:30 on the morning of April 4, David Gelernter, a Yale University computer science professor, got a call from a television network. Theodore Kaczynski, the suspected Unabomber, had been arrested in Montana and Gelernter was offered the "opportunity" to appear on television as the victim of one of the letter bombs. In a pipe-bomb explosion in 1993, Gelernter had lost two fingers, his hearing and vision were damaged, and scars covered a large part of his body. He thanked the producer and said he was not interested in being a victim on television.

That marked him out as something unusual in American life today, where very few refuse the roles that television may assign them - victim, hero, or whatever.

Seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff was on her way to a date with the NBC Today show as the youngest-ever cross-country flyer when the weather turned her from hero into victim. But the show must go on. Her nine-year-old brother had to be dissuaded, because of bad weather, from flying another small plane over Jessica's funeral. Her dry-eyed mother was all over television, expressing no regrets about Jessica's short but well-lived life.

Now, people were saying Jessica shouldn't have done it, or been allowed to do it, or been encouraged to do it. And 12-year-old Daniel Shanklin of Kansas City, Kan., found this all very confusing. Five years earlier at seven, a few months older than Jessica when she died, Daniel had been the youngest-ever pilot on a Cessna, flying from San Diego to North Carolina. And he ended up a hero on NBC with David Letterman. No one questioned then whether he should have done it. Interviewed now on television (where else?) he wondered why people say, "Oh, the poor girl! She never should have done that."

Young Daniel Shanklin is learning what it took me many years to learn about the fickleness of television as an arbiter of identity. When I disappeared from the tube some 10 years ago, after 25 years with CBS and five years with CNN, a man stopped me in a restaurant and said "Hey, didn't you used to be Daniel Schorr?"

Television in courtrooms has given us a bumper crop of media celebrities, many of them trying out for the role of victim. O.J. Simpson, so long a sports hero on television, acted as though the police and the media had made him their victim. The Menendez brothers wanted us to believe they were victims of their parents.

I found it a little much when Bernard Goetz, being sued by a young man whom he shot and left paralyzed in a Manhattan subway 12 years ago, appeared on court television proclaiming that the plaintiff was the "assailant" and he was the "victim." But television is a great place for playing out fantasies. On television, even a Kato Kaelin can dream of being a hero. On television, the bankrupt Lloyd Dubroff, daughter Jessica, and her mother, who for a time lived as squatters in an abandoned house, could visualize media fame and fortune.

Television can be a wonderful experience, if you don't inhale.

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