WE WERE bored. We were lonely. We lusted for a new superstar, and the media, especially television, were ready to supply one.
Teng went the strings of our hearts.
Now that the vice premier of China has gone home, it can't hurt to wonder if what we saw of Teng Hsia-ping's visit to America on Amercan television was reportage or the sale of a bill of goods. Network coverage of the visit -- wags have dubbed it "The Teng Show" -- semed delicately deferential for the most part and unquestioning in a way that must have pleased the White House far too much.
More disturbing, in a subtler but perhaps more insidious way, was the treatment given Teng by federally funded public television on "America Entertains Vice Chairman Teng," a live special from the Kennedy Center that gave new meaning to the cliche "all smiles." Host Dick Cavett was all smiles, Jimmy Carter was of course all smiles, and public television was smiling itself into a dither.
George Stevens Jr., who produced the after-dinner entertainment, is certainly not to be faulted for the way he rushed together a presentable, warm, and winningly eclectic smorgasbord of Americana -- although highlights like the Joffrey Ballet and the Harlem Globetrotters were somewhat mitigated by the bumbling giggles of John Denver and the near-surgical hearttugging of the cloyish Shirley MacLaine. But the production had both decorum and spirit, and this is certainly rare at a Kennedy Center gala, where things usually start on a level of stiff nightmarishness and get worse.
Public television's handling of the event, however, leaned toward obsequious reverence; public TV became a tool in the Carter Administration's campaign to put Teng, and normalization, over with the American people (the tool apparently needs sharpeing, because a recent poll showed Americans divided over the president's decision to embrace China and forsake Taiwan).
It is true that an oil company coughed up the $500,000 to put the program on television, but there are still federal funds involved in any national public TV transmission. When we add that fact to the public-relations nature of the event, to the way public TV handled it, and to the political interests it served, the whold project takes on a distressingly propagandistic tinge.
It suggests that public television risks becoming, on such occasions of official ceremony, State Television, or Political Television, or, in this case, the People's Republic of Television. It might be healthier for the nation if the White House and public television were at each other's throats -- as in Nixon days of yore -- rather than have them bosom buddies scratching each other's backs.
At the opening of the broadcast, Cavett, ill-suited for such a role, narrated to fill time a taped replay of Teng's first day in the United States. Carter's repeated goofs in identifying the vice premier by title ("Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Prime, Mr. Vice Premier...") were edited out of the tape and so were the appearances made by two pro-Taiwan demonstrators on the White House Lawn. Nor was there any mention of the larger and noisier demonstrations that occurred on the other side of the White House and in Lafayette Park.
Instead, Cavett dismissed such events in a manner reminiscent of Marie Antoinette; "one or two inevitable hecklers were escorted away" was his only suggestion that discord had dared to intrude on nirvana. Was this because he didn't want to offend the vice premier, who could not possibly have been watching, or because he didn't want to upset the White House, which currently looks favorably on increased funding for public TV and might not look favorably on the exposure of a single wrinkle in the day's scenario?
As television, except for the lengthy translations of wordy introductions, this was not at all a bad show. Director Don Mischer caught a few privileged shots, like one of Carter escorting his guests into the presidential box of the Opera House, another of Teng, preparing to speak from the stage, removing a little piece of crumpled paper from his pocket and unfolding it as he had done earlier in the day. on it was his speech.
But then Cavett, whose eagerness to please bordered on idee fixe , committed his supremo blooper of the evening, indentifying for the home audience a shot of "the distinguished Robert O. Anderson," president of the Atlantic Richfield Co. which had funded the broadcast. Considering the number of other dignitaries Cavett had failed to identify (including Kennedy Center Chariman Roger L. Stevens), this was an especially unfortunate mistake.
When it came to bowing and scraping before Teng and his allegedly charismatic presence, however, the commercial networks weren't exactly caught napping. Frank Reynolds ended an ABC News broadcast with a gush of flowery futurology about the wonderful new era beginning; it sounded not only premature, but also an expression less of Reynolds' awe at the grandeur of events at hand than of his desire to give TV viewers a cheerful little earful, no matter how windfilled and fanciful.
Over on the NBC Nightly News, Teng was bid farewell with a montage of happy images from the trip, while -- though NBC News refused to credit the source -- the Kennedy Center orchestra heard on the PBS broadcast played repeated chipper choruses of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Getting to Know You." Again, discouragng words, or images, were verboten; none of the week's demonstrations or foul-ups were shown, nor did we see the fall, at a Houston Rodeo, of a horse whose rider carried the American flag.
It was at times as if television had decided to accept without debate precisely the symbolism that the White House wanted all the activities to have.
The American networks went out of their ways to assist the Chinese television personnel traveling with Teng. Much manpower and equipnent was loaned for free. But Burton Benjamin, director of news for CBS News, said this week that the effort was not an attempt to curry favor with an eye toward future Chinese-network relations but rather reciprocity for help the Chinese gave American television when presidents Nixon and Ford visited China.
"No matter how hard we insisted, they charged us virtually nothing," Benjamin said. "So we offered to reciprocte. We supplied them a camera crew and producers. They paid for travel and living expenses and for satellite and transmission costs, by far the largest nut of the deal."
Benjamin said the CBS donation to the Chinese amounted to about $39,000.
He denied that "we gave this guy a free ride" and pointed to a piece done by correspondent Bernard Kalb on the CBS Monday Morning News telecast after Teng went home. Kalb expressed what many TV viewers may have been thinking -- that there was a considerable disparity between the cuddly charming man that the correspondents kept describing and the actual figure of Teng we saw on the screen.
"Teng Hsiao-ping really is a feisty, tough, essentially ruthless political figure on the Chinese Communist scene," said Kalb. "And apparently, in some sort of hunger on the part of the media to establish an extraordinary personality, he has been endowed with attributes that I have not yet found."
Kalb didn't say it, but the thought has to arise: How much were the networks and public television used by the White House to communicate a point of view through the availability of staged events so terribly adorable that no news director would ever consider throwing them onto the cutting room floor?
"I don't think that people were really listening precisely to what Teng Hsiao-ping was saying," said Kalb. "It was a 'spectacualr' that we were watching this week, but what we in fact were seeing was simply the packaging, the public packaging, for strategic self-interest."