Red Grange and the War and TV WAR IN THE GULF

February 03, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — The night Red Grange died, one of the cable channels ran a documentary about Jack Dempsey, another of the heroes who made the 1920's the "golden age of sport."

It showed grainy black-and-white film of man-to-man combat between Dempsey and boxers like Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo. On a nearby channel, four-star generals were offering what looked like Nintendo games as news about life-and-death combat in the golden age of television.

To re-create the flavor of the Twenties, the Dempsey documentary flashed action photos of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and indeed Red Grange -- whom it identified as the quarterback in the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. Chances are that at least half the viewers who heard that let it pass without the shriek it produced in my living room.

What percentage of the TV audience in 1991 knows who Red Grange played for? What percentage cares?

What percentage of Americans knows or cares about any of the words accompanying the pictures that are cheered as the dominant medium in today's world?

The question goes beyond sports documentaries, and matters more. It has never been brought up more forcefully than by coverage and censorship of the Persian Gulf war.

Ken Burns, who produced and directed the epic public television series on "The Civil War," has mused in the New York Times on "the painful, essential images of war."

He does not hesitate to say that "as we have grown more and more dependent on visual signs and language, and less and less a country and society of letter writers and diary keepers, television has become more and more the way we are connected to the making of history." But as an eloquent writer and appreciator of others' writing, he does not seem as happy about that as others in TV.

The pictures in his own documentaries, about Huey Long, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Civil War and next the history of baseball, would mean much less without the words that accompany them. Unlike the typical quick-cutting videotape editor, he held steady on faces and scenes. While he did, he used letters, diaries and talking heads, always poetic and almost always accurate, to make those pictures make sense.

Television pictures "have become a kind of emotional glue that makes our new histories stick in our minds and hearts, permanently a part of each of us, defining as they go the life of the nation," Mr. Burns says.

Yet in early reports from the Persian Gulf, TV "imposed its usual distracting theatrics on the situation, . . . suggesting that the war itself might be a wholly owned subsidiary of television, not the other way around. . . . In television's constant breathless hyperbole, it is almost impossible for any action, however minor or insignificant, not to take on earthshaking import, again devaluing the true, the significant."

Truth demands perspective, some sense of the relative importance of things. Pictures demand accurate explanation, to tell who Red Grange was and to make clear that the latest incoming Scud missile is not the greatest military event of the century just because it might fall on the press hotel in Dhahran.

In the current war, television has tried to provide some of that from analysts half a world removed from the action. But more than ever, technology drives coverage. The Scud shots loom so big because live pictures of reporters with missiles flashing behind them can be bounced off satellites into American homes and Saddam Hussein's hide-out.

No editorial judgment intervenes between the camera and the viewer. We see not a finished story, but raw material -- what in pre-live TV times would have gone into the reporter's notebook, to be sifted and fitted together in some perspective.

The dominant philosophy of today's TV news is that if any feat can be done technically, then it should be done. The result is a nightly display of electronic wizardry that gives military officers the willies, lest someone unwittingly tip off the Iraqi leader to what comes next.

Of course TV newspeople are not irresponsible. They are still working out how to adapt their technical means to the necessary restraints of war. Meanwhile their capability gives the military just the excuse it wants to clamp on the tightest press controls of any American war in memory. Quite naturally, those who deal in words resent being hogtied by official fear of those who deal in pictures.

Red Grange was an Illinois halfback, not a Notre Dame quarterback.

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