ABC, Sawyer take the low road, recycling the 'dirt'

December 20, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape allowed herself to be identified on ABC-TV's "Primetime Live" in an interview with Diane Sawyer.

In America, in 1991, this is called prime-time entertainment. At times, it was embarrassing to watch. The question is: Who's to blame.

We can talk all kinds of high-minded journalistic talk about victims' rights and privacy, but last night on television it was not about that. It was about titillation, psycho-drama, the television news industry's preposterous sense of self-importance and even further blurring of the notions of public and private.

What mainly went on for the 35 minutes or so of the interview was ABC retrying the case, with Sawyer alternately playing judge and psychiatrist. It was one of Sawyer's most smarmy performances, and she can smarm with the best of them when the interview is big enough.

'They say you're a tease . . . a little wild," she said to Patricia Bowman at one point, ". . . that you overreacted, over-remembered . . . you had this deep-seated distrust of men . . . . You were abused as a child? . . . They say you carried around this instability. . . . Did you use cocaine? Occasional use or heavy use? . . . How did you feel when they held up your underwear in the courtroom?"

That was the high road Diane Sawyer was traveling last night.

At times it was surreal. Bowman's answer to the underwear question, for example, was, "The pantyhose issue was a big one." In a nation with massive economic problems, 15 million of us are hanging on the "pantyhose issue."

There was something sad about watching Bowman stumble in some of her responses to questions about the "dirt" printed by tabloids. Ms. Sawyer made sure all the "dirt" was repeated last night.

Ms. Bowman and her attorneys are surely partly to blame for agreeing to the interview. ABC is partly to blame to slicing and dicing her life this way and wrapping it around advertisements. But none of it would happen if we didn't watch.

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