Television news fails to deliver the full picture In 'tense' House chamber and in Baghdad, reporters fill in gaps with facts

December 20, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It was another mind-blowing, surreal day of history and histrionics on our television screens as we watched a drama yesterday never before seen on American TV: the impeachment of a president.

But, for all of the medium's marvelous ability to take us in a heartbeat from Baghdad to Capitol Hill and the White House as incredible events unfolded this week, there was a major part of the story yesterday that television was not able to show us.

We saw the stunning resignation statement by Speaker-presumptive Robert L. Livingston and got some idea of its impact on other members from the emotional words of Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, and Tom DeLay, majority whip. But, because the cameras in the House of Representatives are controlled by the House and not the news operations covering the story, we had no real sense of what was happening in the chamber.

We saw only the static, wide-angle, C-SPAN shots showing mainly the front of the room for most of the day. Only one reporter took it upon herself to fill in that gaping, visual hole, ABC's Cokie Roberts, and that seemed to happen by accident.

When ABC anchorman Peter Jennings commented to her that the mood of the House seemed "tense," Roberts responded with some surprise.

"Tense?" she asked incredulously. "It's beyond tense. Pandemonium, chaos, surprise that I don't think I've ever seen here. It's incredible."

As she added details of the scene, Roberts did from the floor of the House what Christiane Amanpour has been doing so splendidly all week for CNN from a rooftop in Baghdad, where the cameras are also controlled by government authorities. She reminded us that what we were seeing was only a thin slice of the scene, and she gave us some sense of how representative that slice was.

Call it good, old-fashioned reporting in this age of the visual image and dizzying television technology.

There was no shortage yesterday of resonant television moments when image, words and ambient sound all came together. One featured Bob Franken, the CNN congressional correspondent, posed against the Capitol dome talking about the "amazing" sense of being witness to history, when thunder could be heard rolling overhead.

If the day didn't already have the feel of a Shakespearean historical drama, it did then. A few moments later, over at the White House, CNN's Wolf Blitzer commented that he had not yet heard any thunder on his side of town, but added that he expected he soon would.

As if on cue, the darkening sky and rolling thunder moved in over the White House as Blitzer reported the "deeply depressed" mood within.

CNN was again the fastest and most thorough game in town. It was first to take us to the White House and spokesman Joe Lockhart with President Clinton's reaction to Livingston's bombshell. While the Fox News channel also got us quickly over to the White House, it was four minutes before ABC joined the hunt. NBC and CBS brought up the rear.

The moment of Clinton's reaction was too much even for the split screen. CNN had Lockhart and the House chamber on screen at first. But then military action was reported in Iraq, and CNN split the screen between Lockhart and Baghdad. We needed a third window yesterday to keep abreast of developments.

ABC was showing more hustle than it has all week, especially Roberts and Sam Donaldson. But Jennings still seemed slightly out of it. He sounded downright cranky when he didn't get the answer he seemed to have wanted from one of the ABC experts.

When political analyst William Kristol said he thought Livingston's resignation would put some pressure on Clinton to resign, Jennings said, "Yeah, but who's going to increase the pressures? Certainly, the Republicans have got as much pressure on as they can. The Democrats are resisting like nobody's business at the moment. And the country thinks the Republicans are nuts."

Not knowing how to respond to the "nuts" generalization, Kristol tried to sound conciliatory, saying: "Well, maybe there won't be much pressure."

Some of ABC's problems in covering the incredible events this week -- such as its inability at times yesterday to get legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin's microphone to work even though he was in the network's Washington bureau and not Baghdad, for goodness' sake -- can be linked to the network's lockout of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

But the big problems seemed to be editorial, with a lack of focus and a roster of aging superstars who seem to think covering a story consists of talking to each other on air. The worst big-name performer on the impeachment story, though, was clearly NBC's Maria Shriver, who seemed to be under the impression that taking a wide sampling of congressional opinion means talking to her cousin, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank.

NBC's performance suffered in direct proportion to every minute of air time yesterday that went to her instead of Tim Russert. And that was a lot of minutes.

It's true, Russert doesn't toss his hair back quite as dramatically as Shriver at the end of each report. But you get the sense that Russert rarely utters a word that isn't based on extensive, thorough and balanced reporting.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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