To the end, TV shaped Thomas-Hill story to fit entertainment concepts

October 16, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

We could have been watching draft day for the National Football League. As the Senate vote on Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination was tallied yesterday evening, CNN trained its camera on Judge Thomas' mother in Pin Point, Ga.

When victory was announced, Mrs. Thomas and her guests hugged and cheered; CBS and NBC cut to the scene as well, capturing the Kodak moment.

And so it went as the five-day Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill miniseries wound to a close. Despite an anti-climatic Senate debate during the morning and afternoon that drew significantly reduced coverage from the broadcast networks, television continued to impose it's entertainment-shaping influence on a serious story.

Like the emotional testimony that poured out of our television screens over the weekend, yesterday's Senate discourse mirrored the "Donahue" show or "Sally Jessy Raphael" more than it did "Profiles in Courage." It was a discussion of personalities not philosophy, government or jurisprudence. It was, in short, TV talk, with the senators generally speaking in emotional sound bites.

"There is no proof that Anita Hill has perjured herself, and shame on anyone who suggests that she has," Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said. "We do not need characterizations like shame in this chamber from the senator from Massachusetts," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) fired back. "The way that Anita Hill was treated was shameful, shameful," Kennedy replied dramatically.

Personalities in conflict, just like on TV talk shows. It could have been Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley on "Crossfire" or the gang on WJZ-TV's "Square Off."

It reached its low when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, denied charges that the White House was running the confirmation by saying, "If anybody believes that, I know a bridge up in Massachusetts I'll be happy to sell to them without Senator Kennedy." Hatch later apologized for what many took to be a reference to Chappaquidick.

As we have seen before, TV once again lowered the level of public discourse by making otherwise thoughtful folks behave like they are sitting on the couch next to Ed McMahon talking to Johnny. And despite a Pollyanna-like tendency to characterize the Thomas-Hill teleproduction as a great, electronic town meeting on the issue of sexual harassment, it fell short.

TV does bring us all together in a form of a town meeting and set an agenda of what's to be discussed, but the manner of discussion can greatly affect its outcome.

CNN, C-SPAN II, PBS and Court TV deserve praise for sticking with yesterday's events. But we must also admit that TV cameras, in general, helped turn many senators into entertainment wannabes.

And if you doubt that the nature of the coverage TV provides turns political discussion into show business or spectacle, just think of that image from Pin Point, Ga. last night. Very human. Very moving. And very much like a thousand other scenes we watched play out in entertainment and sports programming.

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