Thomas hearings play like courtroom drama without the exciting finish

October 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Are you feeling cranky, frustrated -- maybe even flat-out mad -- about all the hours you invested watching the Senate hearings?

Did you go to bed bleary-eyed yesterday morning, feeling cheated because you were denied a definitive answer about who was lying and who was telling the truth, Judge Clarence Thomas or law professor Anita Hill?

If so, blame Perry Mason, Ben Matlock or even Judge Wapner and "The Peoples' Court."

Maybe, that is to say, we should point the finger at television and ourselves for ever expecting a real-life Senate hearing to resemble so completely the 40 years of prime-time courtroom dramas we've all been exposed to and surely affected by in ways not fully understood.

And most especially, we should blame our expectation of the neat resolution that inevitably unfolds before the closing credits role.

There were all sorts of story lines being played out in the Senate Caucus Room, which kept pulling us back to our TV sets this weekend. Large and important story lines: the sexual politics of men and women in the workplace, African-American achievement denied and realized, the search for truth with a capital "T." But the great truth of television is that it is an entertainment medium and it tends to shape whatever it covers to an entertainment formula.

The Thomas hearings lent themselves perfectly to this process. There were elements of melodrama, soap opera, serial drama and miniseries inherent to the topic and TV fell right in with the design.

The senators themselves played key roles. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was the cerebral prosecutor, trying to trip up Hill and her supporters. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was the go-for-the-gut, angry prosecutor.

More importantly, the network reporters and anchors -- our guides through the morass -- were interpreting what we saw in terms of the courtroom drama. It so dominated their coverage and questions that during one break Saturday afternoon, Sens. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Specter all answered questions from network interviewers by saying, "Look, this is not a trial."

Leahy and Heflin were especially adamant since the network story line all afternoon had been that Specter -- "the former prosecuting attorney," as Dan Rather kept reminding us -- was trying to shred Hill's testimony, while the Democratic senators sat on their hands.

You don't watch as many courtroom dramas for as many years as most of us have and not have certain expectations. And, as often as you might tell yourself that one event is a real-life hearing and the other is make-believe entertainment, those expectations are triggered when the real-life event looks like a lawyer show, sounds like a lawyer show and is packaged like a lawyer show by the TV correspondents.

The biggest expectation -- the most important convention of the courtroom drama -- is the 11th-hour development. A new piece of evidence is discovered. Or a witness is suddenly located and talked into coming forward. Or, best of all, the liar wilts right before our eyes under a withering cross-examination.

And then, all is right with the world; we can go to bed feeling that the moral order has been restored. That is not the feeling TV viewers went to bed with at 2 a.m. yesterday.

There will be some real-life resolution this evening when the Senate votes to confirm or reject Judge Thomas for the Supreme Court. But it won't be the kind of tidy and cathartic resolution many of us have come to expect.

If the special hearings aren't a hit on video, attribute it to bad word of mouth: "I saw it when it first came out and hated the ending."

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