A BIG FAT sun is lolling in the morning sky. It isn't even raining. You kiss your spouse, hug your kids, pet your dog and step out the door. And then, suddenly -- WHOMP! They've got you, Geraldo Rivera has been poised out there -- in his Adidas and your bushes -- waiting to pounce with a camera crew and half a dozen intimidating questions about your past.
If you think you have an inalienable right not to be thus harassed, some TV journalists would disagree. The "ambush interview," as it's self-explanatorily called, is only one of the so-called "investigative" techniques popular in TV news and themselves investigated last week by "Watching the Watchdog," a virtually unprecedented one-hour report produced and aired by WBBM-TV, the CBS-owned station in Chicago.
Although it was seen only in the Chicago area, the documentary has precipitated repeated exchanges of accusations between the station and ABC News, whose "20/20" came under the heaviest fire in the report; together these two factors have provided a brand new journalistic ethical imbroglio -- the first in two or three whole days.
"This thing has turned into name-calling, and I don't want to participate," says Scott Craig, executive producer of the WBBM special. "We raised some real issues on that show and they're getting clouded over."
Those real issues, seldom raised on the air, have a lot to do with the way television covers news and the increasing use of sexy, clandestine, hotsy-totsy tactics that may have less to do with getting the story than with turning TV reporters into stars and heroes. Rivera, although the most flagrant example, isn't the only one who seems to have graduated from the Long Ranger school of communications.
We all feel in our hearts of hearts that nothing pleases Mike Wallace of prestigious CBS News so much as when he and a "60 Minutes" crew get chases out of a suspect's office or have a door automatically slammed in their faces. It is conceivable in the vast scheme of things that innocent people might want to slam doors in Mike Wallace's puss as much as guilty ones, but in the visual vocabulary of "investigative" TV sleuthing, slamming a door is tantamount to an admission of guilt.
Only this week austere old NBC relaunced its ever-ailing "NBC Magazine With David Brinkley" with a lengthy piece about a Georgia photographer of young girls who had been convicted, unbeknownst to the girls and their moms, on three counts of child-molesting in another county. Reporter Jack Perkins confronted hikm with this record on camera, and when the man got up from his desk and bolted out the door, reporter and crew chased him down the street.
It was the most athletic reportorial display since the blue-jeanned Rivera pursued a pimp over hill and dale and through underground garage in an Ohio town.
Naturally one is reminded of the old story about the dog chasing cars -- what do they do if they catch one? Wrestle him to the ground? Drag him off to the hoosegow? This may be not so much gonzo journalizm as Bonzo journalism. It may not be journalism at all, and it makes the innocent as well as the guilty susceptible to harrassment by a non-constitutional extension of the long arm of the law.
But gosh, it sure makes great pictures!
On "Watching the Watchdog," anchorman Bill Kurtis went through two "20/20" stories in which, it was charged, the techniques employed produced almost all heat and not much light. In one, Rivera and producer Peter Lance thought they had broken an arson-for-profit ring operating in Chicago. Rivera at one point ambushed a man suspected of involvement in the scheme as he left his office and tried to get into his Volkswagen.Then came the blitz.
Rivera: "How do you respond to the charges by various uptown groups that you're engaged in an arson-for-profit ring?" . . . "Why did so many of your buildings, such a disproportionate number of your buildings, burn?"
"The technique is designed to show a man declining to talk," said Kurtis. "The danger, of course, is that it is designed for drama, not to elicit the truth," Charles Roberts, the man pursued, told WBBM, "A man with a camera . . . got up against my car, locked my door so I couldn't get in the car, and they started shooting questions: 'I hear you're a slumlord. You burn buildings. You kill people.'"
Former CBS News president Fred W. Friendly is quoted on "Watchdog" on the subject of ambush interviewing: "That's probably the dirtist trick department of broadcast journalism . . . The picture transmitted in our heads, the viewers' heads, is of the honest reporter asking the honest question and the crooked interviewee being unavailable, when exactly the opposite could be the case."
A federal grand jury was subsequently unable to return any indictments against any of those implicated in the arson ring, including Roberts, who is now suing ABC News.
The other "20/20" story scrutinized on the WBBM report had to do with a doctor in Arkansas suspected of performing unnecessary operations, including operations in which patients had died. According to Kurtis, the ABC News crew unlawfully entered a restricted area in the hospital so it could film an operation in progress through a viewing window in the operating room. The ABC cameraman was later found guilty of criminal trespassing.
Kurtis said on the program, "It will not go down as a landmark case, but journalistically, it stands as an example of how the techniques may have distorted what the reporters were after in the first place."
WBBM aired the "Watchdog" show in prime time, preempting, ironically or not, "Lou Grant." Tapes of the report were sent to some TV writers on major papers, on the condition that ABC News not be phoned for comment until after the program had aired -- an unprofessional and unreasonable stipulation that a New York reporter promptly disobeyed. At this point the squabbling began, with ABC, after some delay, issuing a point-by-point rebuttal to the charges and WBBM, after a staff meeting, coming up with a rebuttal to the rebuttal, and so on.
David Burke, ABC News senior vice president (he runs interference for the redoubtable Roone Arledge), says ABC News will also prepare a broadcast rebuttal to the report, probably to air in prime time on the ABC-owned Chicago station, WLS-TV. We are terribly comfortable with our position," Burke says from New York. "We have so much refutation available to us."
On the various points, Burke and ABC News have answers. They say the ambush interview technique is a viable device in stories of this magnitude and that Roberts, the victim of the Rivera pounce, was given three more opportunities to state his position for the cameras -- without any abmushing -- and declined all three.
Burke says the fact that no indictments were ever returned by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago against Roberts or others implicated by ABC in the arson ring does not prove the charges to be groundless. "Our position on that," says Burke, "is that it is not the function of journalists to rely for veracity on the ability of a U.S. attorney or any other group to return an indictment." Last week U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan issued a statement reaffirming that the decision not to seek indictments "was the proper one" because of lack of evidence, effectively pooh-poohing the results of Rivera's vigilante mission.
The arson matter became "a very hot political item" in Chicago, Burke says. "Everyone in the government of the city, including the U.S. attorney, were all running for cover" when the cases -- including fires in which tenants had died -- went unsolved. He also casts doubt on the motives of WBBM in going after ABC News: "If I were a local station and a national news organization came in and addressed itself to a local story like this and uncovered new evidence, I would try to rationalize why the hell I wasn't on that story."
Burke says the fact that WBBM's promotion staff disturbuted the report to newspapers in other cities on the condition they not seek ABC's reaction constitutes "sort of a definition of sandbag."
As for the invasion of the operating room in Arkansas, Burke says Abc News was invited into the building by a pathologist there and that the crew was not aware it had entered a restricted zone. He said subsequent allegations that the crew had endangered the life of the woman on the operating table at the time are "a lot of nonsense" and that he finds it suspect that the trespassing complaint was not issued until four days after the incident -- when, Burke says, hospital officials perceived what direction the story was taking and acted out of self-interest.
"We're angry," Burke says. "What has bothered us all along is that at no time in discussing the two cases did WBBM put them into context so that people would understand the extent of the stories being covered, the depth of them."
From Chicago, executive producer Craig says Burke's suspicions about shady motives on the part of WBBM-TV are "ridiculous." Burke further charges the report grew out of Craig's own personal discenchantment with Chicago's Better Government Association (BGA), which was ABC's ally in the two investigations. "I just deny it," says Craig. "I'm a person of integrity."
Anchorman Kurtis says he wishes the "boxing match" would end so that the issues brought up in the program can be discussed. "What I hope will happen," he says, "is that we can get the program to a third party, an objective observer, and air not only the merits of this show, but get us into the whole subject of investigative techniques, because they're growing out of control, I think."
"More and more, especially in television, the pressure to grind out investigations affects the process" of newsgathering, Kurtis says during the "Watchdog" program. Later, he notes, "In some cases, it appears the investigative tactics are becoming more important than the stories they attempt to uncover."
As long as there is an ABC News and a Geraldo Rivera and a Roone Arledge, there will be plenty to criticize in broadcast journalism, but Rivera and Arledge may just be the most convenient targets; they're flamboyant, gaudy, fairly shameless and tirelessly self-promoting (in Rivera's cae, it gets to be a case of almost pathological messianism). Questionable practices are hardly limited to ABC News; everywhere on the dial, on local stations and on networks, one can find reporters and news personalities who owe less to Woodward and Bernstein than they do to Starsky and Hutch.
The volleys and thunders between ABC and WBBM are bound to continue. But Kurtis and Craig have a point in wanting the smoke to clear on the picky points and the issues to be discussed. In television we have the most efficient instant starmaker ever invented, and unfortunately, journalists are not immune to its seductive capabilities. As everyone in the civilized world knows by now, the star system also affects print journalism -- sometimes with disastrous consequences -- but in truth, the little magic box holds out much greater temptations and much more technological opportunity.
TV encourages the concept of reporters as stars.
The heart of the matter is contained in the introductory remarks Kurtis makes at the start of "Watching the Watchdogs." He says, "We feel the time has come to look at ourselves and the techniques we use" (audience-grabbing investigative excesses committed by WBBM during ratings "sweep weeks" were cited on the report along with those of competing Chicago stations). Later: "We're going to do something very rarely done. We're going to question how a story was covered, and raise the possibility that no reporter wants to hear: that the story was wrong."
This is something very rarely done by television about television, and considering it is the nation's chief source for news, it should be done much less rarely. "Watching the Watchdogs" also has an encouraging underdog aspect; here was a local station daring to take on a network and hold it accountable. ABC's objections cast doubt on some of the points in the program, but not on the merits of the attempt. Perhaps the time has come for the viewer to pounce back.