A TRAGIC outdoor soap opera kept interrupting the indoor soap operas on TV yesterday; one was real -- a twisted attempt at nuclear protest -- the others fictional. As has happened often enough in the modern world as seen through the fun-house filter of television, reality was proving considerably more bizarre than the fancies cranked out by highly paid tale spinners.
The situation had four local television stations wrestling very publicly with the dilemma of covering a continuing story that was, for them, woefully shy of developments -- until 7:30 last night, when the story neared its apparent conclusion. Until that time about all they could do was plop their reporters in front of the Washington Monument to say that little had changed since early in the day, when a man took the towering obelisk hostage and threatened to explode 1,000 pounds of dynamite he said he had stashed in a truck parked at its base.
What has happened before in the joint age of television and of terrorism was happening again: A mass audience was getting instant access to raw news. At such times the camera becomes a reporter and the viewer becomes a reporter, too, seeing what the press sees as it sees it, even to the point, last night, of attending raucous, on-the-spot press briefings at which pandemonium reigned. Ironically or not, the story remained static through most of the day until just before prime time. Shortly after 7:30, the truck that had remained parked since 9:20 a.m. began to move, and police opened fire. At 8 p.m., Dan Rather was back on the air for CBS News with more live coverage and with better close-up pictures of the now overturned van than were appearing on any of Washington's local stations or the other networks.
The roof of the van faced the camera, and occasionally searchlights from police helicopters overhead gave it an eerie glow against the dark background of night.
When viewers can see as much as reporters can, the reporters can become superfluous, and as late as 11:30 last night, no TV reporter could say for certain if there had been two protesters or only one. "It's one of those stories," said Gordon Peterson of Channel 9, "where the picture is ahead of the facts--sort of the curse of television journalism." Despite the melodramatic showboating of one of its correspondents -- muttering Mike Buchanan -- Channel 9 provided viewers with the lengthiest, most alert and most comprehensive coverage throughout the long, tense day and the climactic night.
When the drama moved into prime time, Peterson felt obliged to advise viewers, "This is not the movie of the week," because there were obvious resemblances to the kind of fanciful potboilers cooked up in Hollywood. On Channel 4, anchor Jim Vance noted the similarity of the story to "normal prime-time programming" but said, "This one is all too real."
Channel 7, the ABC affiliate, chose to stay with its own coverage rather than pick up ABC News reports by Ted Koppel and Bettina Gregory that interrupted "Tales of the Gold Monkey," but then the station dropped the story suddenly in order to carry the Virginia-Duke basketball game. Channel 4 had returned to regular network programming as well. As a result, only Channel 9 carried, live, the appearance at the Monument grounds of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and the mayor's characterization of the protester, then dead, as having been "insane and crazy."
What viewers saw at home during the day -- they might have been initially incredulous viewers, but then, what is really capable of defying credulity any more? -- were live telephoto TV pictures of the truck in question and a man pacing around it. He was wearing a snowsuit and a motorcycle helmet and carrying what looked like the remote control for a toy car.
One may have been alternately horrified and appalled, but the scene also resembled from time to time a clip from a classic of bad cinema called "Plan 9 From Outer Space," in which a man in a gorilla suit and a fishbowl made a humble attempt at menacing the Earth.
It was also difficult to resist likening the scenario to the plot of one of the terrorist thriller movies in vogue a few years ago -- movies about people taking the Super Bowl hostage, or an amusement park hostage, or an airplane hostage. Yesterday's cheap fiction becomes today's cheap reality.
Reporters found out the danger was real yesterday, however, and they found out on live TV, at the same time viewers found out. A Park Service officer told correspondents assembled near the Monument that they could be injured if they remained on the scene to cover the story until, he said, "the safe resolvement of this incident." They could stay of their "own free will," he told the reporters, though free will may have had nothing to do with it. Picking up the weekly paycheck may have had more to do with it.
As in 1977, when Hanafi Muslims took over the District Building and B'Nai B'rith headquarters here for a lengthy and frightening siege, the story and the reporting of it got intertwined; the coverage became part of the event. Yesterday, the man with the truck-bomb said he would reveal his demands only to a reporter, not to the police, and did. And among those demands, finally broadcast after seven hours of waiting, was that TV and radio stations devote "51 percent" of their air time in the future to discussions of a nuclear freeze.
By this time, reporters were getting truly desperate in their attempts to cover the story. Channel 7 promised viewers that on its 5:30 newscast, "We'll talk with a man who thinks he knows one of the men" at the Monument (a second man was believed to be hiding in the truck). On Channel 9, Chris Gordon told viewers they would be privileged to witness an interview with the sign painter hired to make the antinuclear sign that hung from the side of the truck. The station also aired an interview with a maintenance worker at the motel where the man in the snowsuit was allegedly a registered guest.
Anyone could see that the reporters themselves were frustrated by their lack of access to information there. Peterson, at 9:10, told viewers, "For the first time in a long time we have one fact." The fact was that the man in the truck had been pronounced dead.
Channel 9 reporter Gary Reals contributed the understatement of the day when he told viewers from the Monument grounds, "There's probably something taking place that we don't know about." But Channel 9 was the most scrupulous station when it came to warning commuters of the living hell they'd be facing as they tried to drive home after work.
Jim Clarke of Channel 7 said on the air that the man or men at the Monument had succeeded in getting "the attention of the nation." In fact, the national networks showed restraint in reporting the situation during the day, having been sensitized to the risks of overplaying stories of terrorist works-in-progress. ABC and NBC each interrupted their regular daytime programming only twice for reports; CBS had no interruptions, just updates on its regularly scheduled news breaks. A CBS News spokesman in Washington said, "We're playing it very conservatively."
Although the gravity of the situation was apparent, the absurdities of it became just as clear as the day wore on and Washington stations repeatedly broke into soap operas -- which is a little like trampling holy ground to the soaps' loyal viewers -- with updates that contained little new information, only additional shots of the man stalking about at the foot of the Monument. Just after 1 p.m. Channel 9 was airing such an update when through a technical fluff, "The Young and the Restless" suddenly and briefly reappeared. What viewers saw in quick succession was this:
Reporter: "The only demands that we know of -- "
Young and Restless woman: "That would make things a lot easier, wouldn't it?"
When it was revealed that one of the protester's demands amounted to making Jonathan Schell's "Fate of the Earth" required reading, we may have been witnessing the first book plug ever contained in a terrorist confrontation. Stations meanwhile cut somewhat disconcertingly from updates on the crisis to "Charlie's Angels" reruns, or the worst film version ever made of "Tom Sawyer," or "The People's Court." Or commercials -- which must prevail, come hell, high water or 1,000 pounds of dynamite -- in which Lynda Carter extolled "colors that lick your lips" and Grizzly Adams tried to beat up on a pair of boots.
Life goes on, commercials go on, and the weather of course has to go on, and so at about 5:15, Channel 9 weatherman Gordon Barnes told viewers that "the reality of the month of December will return to Washington tomorrow morning." He meant cold temperatures, not an end to madness on the Mall.
Channel 9's Peterson retained enviable cool and authority through most of the coverage, but late in the day seemed overwhelmed by pathos. Peterson said the threat of an explosion may have been "a giant bluff" but that the act had still served to warn "the entire world . . . that we are on the threshhold of nuclear annihilation." It sounded as if the protester had made at least one convert.
But actually, earlier in the day, when correspondents on various stations described what effect the dynamite would have were it to explode, the average viewer may have begun to think about the damage a nuclear device could do. We may have witnessed the birth on live television of terrorist pacificism. And if it is somehow perceived that it accomplished its goal, we may be seeing more of it.