TV's role as entertainer gets in the way of truth ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

February 11, 1993|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The belated apology to General Motors by NBC for rigging a truck crash demonstration by installing an incendiary device does little to resolve the serious journalistic questions raised by the incident.

Ever since the advent of television, the newspaper business has been obliged to come up with new approaches to survive the competition. The pressure has produced more use of color, charts and other visual allures, and all manner of new features about what has come to be called "lifestyle."

But the basic commodity has remained the same -- telling readers what's going on, quickly and with as much accuracy as possible under deadline demands.

Television, for its part, has evolved its own concept of "news" as it attempts to work two sides of the street -- functioning as a source of information while remaining America's principal delivery vehicle for home entertainment. Rather than striving to keep the two separate to preserve the integrity of the first function, the networks have gone the other way.

The result has been a panoply of shows that either mix news with entertainment -- the so-called docudrama that uses documentary techniques sprinkled generously with pure fiction -- or rig what is shown, as in the GM truck incident, and peddle it as the truth.

Because Americans by and large accept the axiom that "seeing is believing," the credibility of what is shown on the television screen has something special going for it -- and a special obligation to keep faith with the viewing public.

Years ago, television's credibility got severely burned when it was disclosed that a popular quiz show of the time had been rigged by repeatedly providing a contestant with answers beforehand. But because television is primarily an entertainment medium, the emphasis continued to be what makes "good television," even if the truth got tarnished a bit in the process.

Print journalism has long recognized that it has a special responsibility to deliver the truth. For instance, when the Washington Post learned that its Pulitzer Prize story about a child drug dealer was not all fact -- the child was a fictional representation, the paper fired the reporter who wrote the story and returned the prize.

NBC's apology in the exploding truck incident was laughable. The co-host of its "Dateline" show that aired it said the network regretted "the inappropriate demonstration" and concluded that "unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard-news stories at NBC."

A mouthpiece for the network added that NBC would "now try to determine where our process went awry." It should not be very hard to do, or take very long. The "process" went wrong when somebody decided to cross the line between truth and the desire to make "good television" by putting the incendiary device on the truck -- and then failed to tell the viewing audience about it.

Meanwhile, the networks have been cutting back on real hard-news coverage by dropping experienced correspondents or keeping them off the road. Instead, during the 1992 presidential primaries, young, inexperienced "producers" were often sent out with the candidates, sometimes without camera crews.

Because television is driven by the need for the visual, the emphasis has been on "good pictures" over the substance of the story.

It is ironic that in the earlier years of television, some of the best work in journalism was done on the tube. With professionals like Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and many other giants of television news and commentary just sitting around a table telling viewers what their diligent reporting had found out, television was on its way to contributing to a vastly better informed public.

The factual documentaries produced by these individuals and others enriched not only the entertainment but the knowledge of American society.

There is always a danger for those of us in print journalism to take a holier-than-thou attitude toward television. The spectacle of so-called "mainstream" newspapers following the lead of supermarket tabloids into the Clinton sex allegations of a year ago illustrates the peril. But when news is mixed with entertainment to the detriment of truth, television goes too far over the edge.

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