The worst charge that can be made against the way that television news departments cover events like inaugurations and conventions is that they do not allow their cameras to linger.
The more sophisticated television equipment becomes, the more the people who operate it feel they must flex their electronic muscles. I believe they do it not because they ought to, but simply because they can.
I suspect that in addition to their fascination with electronic muscle-flexing, they also do not understand that news is narrative - it has a story to tell. Their restless cameras covering a live event have a tendency to make the news a series of one-liners. We get from them no sense of continuity.
I began to brood about this practice during the inauguration coverage as I sat looking at three television sets. (I always brood when I watch three sets, I merely scowl when I am watching only one.)
When President Carter had finished his address and had gone into the Capitol to meet with family and friends, the compelling aspect of the continuing narrative of the transfer of power now became the sight of President and Mrs. Ford walking to a nearby helicopter which would take the couple, and Vice President, and Mrs. Rockefeller, on a nostalgic swing around the city before proceeding to Andrews Air Force Base.
The symbolism involved was not just that a President was leaving office, it was rather that a political gencration was leaving Washington.
Gerald Ford came to Washington right after World War II. He was, in his own way, just as much a symbol of congressional politics as was Lyndon Johnson. He was the last of a line of Presidents, dating back to Harry Truman, who come to the presidency not from a governor's mansion but from the Congress. Whatever virtues he had, whatever faults, stemmed directly from his being a Washington fixture for mor than a quarter of a century.
If pictures are anything, they are symbols. That long walk that President Ford took from the Capitol - which more than the White House was his true spiritual home - was one of the more poignant sights that we have witnessed in this city for many years.
Television did not do it justice. Its cameras would not linger. ABC was the worst offender, cutting back and forth from the walk to interviews with Billy Carter and Barbara Jordan in the Capitol's rotunda. All the dramatic symbolism of the moment was utterly lost. CBS was almost as bad, dwelling on a discussion with foreign correspondents when Ford arrived at Andrews.
The story at this moment was not Billy Carter, Barbara Jordan, or even Jimmy Carter. It was the passing of a political age embodied in this one decent man and his wife taking leave of this city.
A movie director, or a novelist, would have known what to do with a scene that carried that much symbolic upon it, let it play itself, without any resort to devices that would detract from the drama of it.
But television either won't linger, or does not know how to linger. It has all that marvelous equipment that it can play with. But it operates that equipment, at least during inaugurations and conventions, pretty much like a child with a new toy.
Like children, who have the annoying habit of never completing sentences, the people who run television news seem never able to complete their own visual sentences. It is time they grew up.