Fact and Filmmaking on the Network News

RICHARD REEVES

February 18, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--Network news is too young to die -- the nightly news as we know it won't even be 30 years old until later this year -- but it is going down in flames, burning up in living color like a rigged GM pickup truck.

NBC happened to be the network that got caught rigging pickups to explode on camera to dramatize a report charging that GM trucks were unsafe at any speed. But CBS and ABC are going to be burned by those flames, too.

''Damned NBC ruined it for all of us,'' a CBS news executive told me the other night. ''We're never going to hear the end of this. Who will ever trust us?''

Two days later, Howard Rosenberg, television critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the deceptive explosions on an NBC News program called ''Dateline NBC'' represented nothing less than ''an electronic Titanic, an unprecedented disaster . . . perhaps the biggest TV scam since the Quiz Scandals.''

The quiz show scandals (the questions and answers were rehearsed) disgraced television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and part of the networks' reaction was to clean up their image by emphasizing news, introducing the 30-minute newscast in the summer of 1963. Now network news seems intent on the same kind of self-disgrace.

Mr. Rosenberg also picked up on a little mini-scandal some of us noticed last week on the NBC nightly news. The NBC report on the 30th anniversary of the publication of a book that changed the world, ''The Feminine Mystique'' by Betty Friedan, was exactly the same as the network's report on the 25th anniversary. NBC was too cheap or too lazy to do an original report so it just used the five-year-old film and called it new.

Newspapers and magazines (and columnists) do the same thing, recycling old quotes to fit new times and new stories -- the better journals and journalists usually include a line indicating when the things were actually said -- but print journalism can't do explosions, one reason it does not have the visceral impact of television. TV lives by the power of pictures worth thousands and thousands of words, and the credibility of TV news is dying by reaction to the impact of faked excitement.

Print, of course, loves to beat up on television, and most of the reporting and analysis of the pickup affair on NBC focused on money, emphasizing the budget cuts and layoffs that General Electric imposed on the news division since taking over NBC. Fewer people means fewer checks and balances, and with accountants on top, news producers are afraid of things like testing trucks in expensive crashes and coming back without film that excites anybody.

That's part of it, I'm sure, but the principal reason for the decline -- or, perhaps, just the changes -- in TV news is that it has come of age and is now a separate thing from what people like me call ''journalism.''

Television news began as print journalism with moving pictures. Most of the people who ran the news shows came from newspapers and magazines and they thought, quite wrongly, that the words were more important than the pictures. There is a wonderful story about Bernard Kalb going from the New York Times to CBS News and covering his first story, something in Congress, by tucking his microphone into his armpit so his hands were free to take notes on what some senator was saying.

But the guard has changed now, and many of the most talented people in the current TV news generation think of themselves not as reporters or producers but as ''filmmakers.'' They love to ''make'' film into stories. The film itself, the pictures, are the real object of the exercise. The words are not that important to them and, in fact, are what we call ''just words'' if a truck does not explode on cue.

There will be, I'm sure, an effort at least by NBC News to present this incident as the beginning of a new wave of ethics and standards and guidelines, but it is really the end of the old standards, those old journalism ethics imposed, sometimes quite hypocritically, by print journalists.

After all, despite the heat of the moment on NBC, both CBS and ABC have already had and survived similar credibility crises: CBS with questions about the authenticity of war film from Afghanistan and ABC for re-enacting scenes of a U.S. diplomat supposedly taking money in a briefcase from Soviet agents.

TV news has become entertainment of a rather low form -- explosions, car chases, a lot of shoot-'em-up and sex. That probably has a lot to do with the rise of the filmmakers over the reporters. The problem from now on for the network news is that the people putting it together would really rather be in Hollywood making ''real'' films. It's not that they don't care about the old criticisms; it's that they don't understand what they have to do with filmmaking.

Situations such as the pickup-truck scandal, then, are going to happen again and again -- and each time it will seem less important, as fact and filmmaking merge into a new non-linear information form.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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