Images caught human kinship

words miss the point

Big-name journalists too often put themselves before the story

January 01, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

TV met Y2K, and the pictures were A-OK. But the personality-first, story-second commentary and coverage were almost too much to bear, especially on ABC.

From the islands of Kiribati and Tonga at 5 a.m. to Moscow, Bethlehem and London some 12 hours later yesterday, the pictures of other nations welcoming in the New Year were stirring.

There was nothing new about television delivering spectacular images that fairly scream their message of life in a hard-wired global village.

We've seen it before in memorable closing Olympic ceremonies and state funerals. But it was impossible not to feel a deeper sense of kinship as you saw persons from other cultures singing, chanting, dancing and sending fireworks into their midnight skies in an attempt to affirm the future against anxieties we all share.

There was resonance, too. For some, it was hard not to think of London during World War II and the Blitz, for example, as you watched London Bridge, Big Ben and the Thames under a sky lighted bright as high noon by a spectacular fireworks display. Television news delivered the goods yesterday with such marvelous moments that summoned our shared past even as they heralded the future.

If only we could have had just the pictures without the words of ABC anchorman Peter Jennings and some of the correspondents, such as ABC's Barbara Walters, who was stationed in Paris.

The tone between the two was set right at the start of ABC's marathon coverage when shortly after 5 a.m. Jennings, who was in New York, welcomed Walters on screen by saying, "Barbara, I must say, you look beautiful. But the weather's been terrible there in Paris, hasn't it? Eighty persons killed?"

Is this not textbook celebrity journalism in which the appearance of the correspondent gets top billing over the news -- even if the news is that 80 died? But it was only the beginning.

Each of the big-name journalists that ABC dispatched to various locations around the globe for their New Year's Eve coverage was supposed to discuss what he or she thought would be the big story from their location. Walters chose couture.

And, so, she changed outfits during the day, going from a red mohair outfit by Yves St. Laurent to a lime green, sort of bolero jacket that had Zorro written all over it. Jennings told her how fabulous she looked in each. The piece de resistance of nuttiness featured Walters in a House of Chanel gown and white boots striking several runway poses as if she were a Parisian model.

While ABC, along with CNN, made the biggest commitment, overall its coverage had more to do with show business than journalism. While Jennings addressed the all-star correspondents as if they were experts on the country from which they were reporting, that was not the case.

Lynn Sher, who was in India, is a fine reporter, but she's no expert on India.

"Lynn, there must be a great sense of confidence for women there in India," Jennings said.

"Well, I don't know. The newspaper here asked people what they want in the new millennium. And many women said they just want water to come out of the taps."

Not exactly great confidence. But at least Sher, who only came to India for the special coverage, admitted she was getting her information out of the newspaper.

By 8: 45 p.m., ABC News had a magician in the studio with Jennings doing card tricks. The only good thing to be said about it is that the magician wasn't wearing a lime green bolero jacket. Think the time could have been better spent on the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, a story under-reported all day and night?

Not that CNN was much better. Leon Harris and Colleen McEdwards, the anchor team that started the day for CNN, got the islands of Kiribati and Tonga mixed up.

The CNN mistake on Kiribati and Tonga was repeated later on Fox by its morning anchor team of David Asman and Brigette Quinn, which makes you wonder where they were getting their information from.

You also had to wonder why someone who wants to be taken seriously as an anchorwomen was wearing knee-high go-go boots like the ones Quinn had on.

CNN did have Christiane Amanpour in London, which was a brief breath of fresh air last night. But, by 9 p.m., CNN had Larry King interviewing the Dalai Lama, whom he identified as a Muslim. King later correctly identified his guest as a Buddhist and thanked those viewers who called CNN with the correction.

American television did do some things well beyond showing the pictures provided by the International Consortium, a group of broadcast operations around the world who essentially pooled video.

The early reports from New Zealand and Australia, the first industrialized countries to roll into 2000, did a good job of calming fears about the Y2K bug in reporting a lack of problems.

ABC's James Walker, in New Zealand, was especially effective holding up an ATM receipt he obtained at three seconds after midnight to show that the cash machines were still working.

Television did calm our fears yesterday.

As coverage moved from time zone to time zone with few or no major Y2K glitches reported, you could feel your confidence grow.

But there is irony even in that, since television news has been spending the last six months scaring us to death about New Year's Eve.

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