Watching the glass eye


December 19, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

THE BOGEYMAN of privacy zealots was powerfully evoked in a single sentence in George Orwell's "1984": "Big Brother is watching you." It was the idea that soon we would all be under the constant watchful eye of government, our every move cataloged.

We still sometimes feel this keenly, when we discover that there is an FBI file on someone we know, or when we receive a report from a credit agency and see a late payment on a car loan from 1986 duly noted.

What we never expected was turnabout, and yet that is what we have seen in the last year. We are the ones who are watching. The Palm Beach rape case, the Judiciary Committee hearings -- the unforgiving eye has been our own, thanks to the television cameras.

Many of us started watching in January with the Persian Gulf war, and got up from our front-row seats after the "not guilty" verdict last week. We covered all these things in newspapers too, and often better, if depth, analysis and attention to detail are synonymous with quality. But in the "you are there" department, there are times when television can't be beat.

The hearings on the fitness of Judge Clarence Thomas and the accusations by Professor Anita Hill that he had harassed her made such an indelible impression on us not only because the events were startling and distressing, but also because we sat across the table from them both. We heard the anger in his voice and the determination in hers.

Afterward we argued about who was telling the truth. But we didn't argue about whether we were competent to make the judgment. We came. We saw. We decided. The raw material from which we reporters build stories -- most of it was there onscreen.

It was the first time I can remember thinking that I could cover a story just as well from my living room as I could at the scene. "You probably saw more than we did," said a friend who was in the hearing room.

The Palm Beach rape case was television on trial, and it acquitted itself well. Oh, the dire predictions for cameras in the courtroom: that they would make participants nervous -- as though anything could be more nerve-racking than testifying in court.

That they would cheapen the proceedings -- which, in Palm Beach, seemed scarcely possible. That the public might see trials as -- horrors! -- entertainment! Isn't that just how the public saw them 100 years ago when they went to the courthouse because there were no multiplexes?

But the William Kennedy Smith trial was more than that. Even if it did not educate about the process or enlighten about the law, it spoke to a widespread public concern.

I hear people continuing to argue over the admissibility of prior acts, the wisdom of the anonymity dot, and what really happened to the pantyhose. But nowhere do I hear people saying that the trial was rigged.

They saw the prosecutor, heard the accusations, listened to Smith. Overwhelmingly, polls show, they would have made the same decision had they been on the jury. And, in a sense, they FTC feel that they were, that they participated in a process that, we should remember, was always meant to be public.

The limitations of television are obvious. If we needed to know that TV does a questionable job when it cannot get close to a story but wants to pretend that it is, we have only to remember the graphics department whirligigs and computer-generated whizbangs of the gulf war.

Lots of heat, no light. It took us the rest of this year to finally find out many of the facts about the Iraqi soldiers buried alive, the American troops killed by friendly fire, the blood and the sand.

From January through December, it was the year of the glass eye. We should never believe that it tells the entire story. But it is clear that there are times when people want the scrim pulled aside, the mediator banished, the pick-and-choose that reporters do when faced with a full notebook surrendered to the reader.

They decided for themselves whether Anita Hill was telling the truth. They decided for themselves whether William Kennedy Smith was not guilty. All the arguments against televising such events have at their core one unspoken dictum: that people are too credulous, simplistic and unlettered -- in other words, dumb -- to properly evaluate what they have seen. That Big Brother knows best. That's an elitist and a supercilious view; it also happens to be wrong.

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