It had the photographic quality of a porno reel from the '50s, and one felt a similarly naughty voyeuristic fascination watching it. Fuzzy, grainy and black and white though it was, it was changing the face of television and maybe of our legal system.
All three networks led their evening newscasts last night with what may have been the first of a series of Abscam tapes -- "Real Crooks" captured in the act of being their furtive little selves. The Supreme Court had released for broadcast tapes used as evidence against expelled Rep. Michael Myers (D-Pa.). And all the networks put them right on the air.
There was Myers sitting on a couch with a New Jersey mayor while FBI agents posing as Arab representatives offered him money for influence peddling and even noisily stuffed a big envelope with bills, the big jackpot being $50,000. The sound was not exactly Dolby stereo, but you could hear Myers say, on "NBC Nightly News," "Money talks in this business."
And on the "CBS Evening News" an FBI agent who had given him the loot told Myers to "spend it well." This was after a certain amount of haggling over how much money would be paid and after Myers promised, "We would use our influence as a delegation through me."
Oh, the poor schnook!
Technology had claimed another victim. And on "NBC Nightly News" he was actually reviewing the video tape as if it were a pilot for a new series. "I looked terribly on the tapes," Myers told an NBC reporter. "I'm very ashamed of my performance on tape." Whether Myers is making plans to sign up with the William Morris agency, he alone knows.
On CBS, reporter Fred Graham predicted that other Abscam tapes will now "probably" also be released, perhaps on the same day as they are shown in court. In show biz this called day-dating.
If this happens, TV newscasts could take on a new video verite look that heretofore they were only able to hope for. Whether the entertainment division will ever be able to get hold of this same footage is another matter; if so, perhaps we can expect programs on the order of "Rich Man, Richer Man," "Those Amazing Congressmen" and a truly authentic version of "The FBI," this time with the original cast.
In the motion picture, "Network," fictional characters got hold of bank robbery footage shot by a fanatical terrorist group and built a prime-time series around it. It was called, not very catchily, "The Mao Tse-tung Hour." As Dan Rather noted on CBS, video tapes are playing "a larger and larger role in trials," and the trial tapes now may wind up playing larger and larger roles on television.
Certainly it would help appease the public appetite for new faces -- even if the new faces were fresh off the wanted posters on post office bulletin boards. tOr it could produce a new, unsettling installment of "It takes a Thief," starring one's favorite elected officials.
If more TV security systems are hooked to video tape systems, the amount of authentic crime footage that could be generated is almost incalculable. If the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee had been outfitted with a sophisticated video-tape surveillance system, we would have footage today of the Watergate burglary, third-rate though it may have been. Many of man's greatest crimes could pass before our eyes on network newscasts and we wouldn't just be seeing a reporter with a microphone standing in front of a newly emptied bank or newly stocked slush fund.
Sometimes the shattering of a precedent produces only a muffled moan at first. Rep. Myers accepting money on network television came across like a man who just lost his pants in a crowded department store. On the one hand, one could take a kind of gleeful pleasure in how substantially the goods on him were gotten. On the other, there was an unmistakeable air of pathos in the proceedings; these looked like two-bit, small-time operators, and it was hard to conceive that anything so sacred as public trust was being trampled in the dust.
In other words, as often happens in television, the medium didn't quite match the message. But if Abscam tapes and other recordings of crime-in-motion make it to television, it is definitely going to change the way we look at the tube -- and the way it looks at us.