Machines allow journalists to alter reality with ease

February 20, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

We have lied to you.

We have deceived you.

We have made journalism a mockery and a sham.

Well, we have made journalism more of a mockery and a sham.

The machines are making us do this. They are altering reality.

Altering reality is nothing to a machine. To a machine, reality is just another concept.

Cokie Roberts of ABC News got in trouble last week for using a machine to alter reality.

If you saw her on the TV screen, it looked as if she was wearing an overcoat and standing outside in front of the U.S. Capitol.

In reality, however, she was wearing her overcoat inside the ABC Washington studio, which is about 20 blocks from the Capitol.

I am reliably informed that Roberts has, on several occasions, actually been to the Capitol and could get there if she chose. (Several Washington cab drivers can find it with only minimal help.)

But on this occasion, she was pressed for time and so ABC used a device known as a chroma key. A chroma key lets you put a fake background behind a real reporter.

(In the future, TV will be able to put fake reporters in front of real backgrounds. This may be preferable.)

When a newspaper got wind of what ABC had done, the network fessed up, apologized and "reprimanded" Roberts and her executive producer.

Now let me ask you something:

Do you care?

Had Roberts done her stand up in front of a picture of the Crater Copernicus and said, "Live, reporting from the surface of the moon, this is Cokie Roberts!" then I would have gotten a upset.

And if Roberts had attached incendiary devices to the Capitol, I think she should have been reprimanded. (Well, at least admonished.)

But what difference does it make whether she is in front of the real Capitol building or a picture of the real Capitol building?

A few days after her big sin was revealed, I was watching Ted Koppel interview Philip Heymann, the former deputy attorney general, on "Nightline." Between them on the set was a window. And through that window you could see the Capitol.

Is that a real window?

It is not.

Was that the real Capitol?

It was not.

Do you care?

I do not.

Every time your grinning TV weatherman points at the weather map behind him, he is using the same "fakery" that Cokie Roberts used.

There is no weather map behind the weatherman. (Though there was in the old days.) There is merely a blank chroma key screen.

In fact, TV practices fakery every day. It does this by means of the cutaway.

When, on single camera interviews, the camera cuts away and shows the reporter listening to the person talking, the reporter is not listening to the person talking.

Cut-aways are done after the person is finished talking.

And so the reporter is doing fake nods of the head and fake facial expressions as if the reporter were actually listening.

This particular fakery is accepted television practice. (Though when a TV reporter in the movie "Broadcast News" fakes tears during a cutaway, it causes a scandal.)

Again, do you care?

Newspapers can practice fakery, too. Last week, New York Newsday faked a photo of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan skating together, because the paper did not want to wait a day for them to really skate together.

The newspaper did say in the caption that the photo was a "composite," but many readers probably missed that.

Machines makes all this easy. For instance, all I have to do is press the "column picture" button on my computer together with the "Arnold Schwarzenegger" button to create the picture you see above my name in today's column. (In the past, I have been pushing the "pencil-necked geek" button. Please let me know which you prefer.)

I do feel sorry for Cokie Roberts. She let the machines run away with her, and now she is embarrassed.

"I take responsibility for my action," Roberts told USA Today last week. "I put on a coat because my executive producer asked me to. If he had asked me to take off my blouse, I wouldn't have."

Not until sweeps week, anyway.

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