Shamed Peacock

February 15, 1993

NBC News has managed to do a tremendous amount of damage with a minute or so of film footage. By faking the flaming result of a staged collision with a General Motors pickup truck, the television network injured a lot more than its own credibility.

It muddied the controversy over whether the so-called sidesaddle gasoline tanks, mounted outside the trucks' frame, readily burst into flames in broadside collisions. A Georgia jury has just awarded $105 million to the family of a youth who was killed in just such an accident -- a verdict GM is appealing.

That's bad enough, for the people who own similar trucks. For the public at large, however, the damage is broader and likely to be more lasting. NBC's credibility is not just its own. The other TV news operations, and to some extent print media, get spattered by the fallout from NBC's fakery.

Television news has the advantage of immediacy and vividness. Watchers have a sense of "you are there" -- witnessing an event with their own eyes. That makes a staged explosion all the more deceiving. Television news has a compulsion for drama. In part it is the competition for ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. But it also reflects the increasingly blurred line between news and entertainment. It is most vividly demonstrated in docudramas, fictionalized versions of real events. The TV audience may have been entertained by three incompatible accounts of the Amy Fisher case, but it surely wasn't informed.

This confusion of fact and drama has crept into some TV news operations, particularly the "magazine" programs like "Dateline NBC." ABC is being sued for a program last year alleging unsanitary handling of food at a supermarket chain. Japan's leading TV network is under fire for faking shots in a recent documentary. An old CBS correspondent recently reminisced about the advice he received when he started his TV career: "Sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

The networks' magazines usually give viewers all the investigatory journalism they're likely to see on the tube. For that reason alone, these staffs should not be inhibited by fearful executives who prefer to shun controversy. But this sort of journalism carries particularly heavy obligations of fairness and accuracy. As long as the network news divisions have to struggle for air time with the entertainment programmers, they must take special care to lick 'em, not join 'em.

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