Perhaps Bitburg will in the long run prove to have been more injurious to the Dan Rather administration than to the Ronald Reagan administration. The president finally made his heavily criticized trip to a West German cemetery yesterday, and while ABC's coverage was anchored by Peter Jennings and NBC's by Tom Brokaw, Rather of CBS was nowhere to be seen.
Surely the biggest crisis that Reagan and his aides have yet visited upon themselves, the visit to a cemetery in which SS troops are buried, had been roundly condemned by Jewish and veterans groups before yesterday's anticlimactic events. Brokaw anchored his network's 90 minutes of coverage from New York, and Jennings was on the air for 90 minutes from Bonn, but CBS coverage lasted only 30 minutes and was handled, badly, by Charles Kuralt, host of the network's unshakably sedate, occasionally sedated, "Sunday Morning" show.
As part of a stunningly colossal journalistic misjudgment, CBS was ladling out the canned features of "Sunday Morning" while the other two networks were airing, live, Reagan's speech at Bitburg Air base. This was the speech in which Reagan attempted to calm the stormy waters that his visit to the cemetery had stirred up and in which he said apologetically, "Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing."
Yesterday's Reagan performance was masterful. Yesterday's network performance was not up to that standard.
CBS, traditionally the No. 1 news network, seemed to have missed the significance of an event it had been playing heavily on the news for more than a week. Asked about Rather's failure to appear, a CBS spokesman said from London that he had never been scheduled to anchor the coverage. Rather had taken the Concorde to London Saturday night to preside over a round-table reunion of CBS News correspondents who covered World War II. The discussion will air in three parts starting this morning on "The CBS Morning News."
After he concluded the assignment, Rather returned to New York. The spokesman defended this deployment of the network's star anchor on the grounds that the round-table discussion "is terribly important to the history of CBS News and the history of anyone connected with World War II." It seemed a lame rationalization. On a day of symbolism, the most prominent CBS symbol next to the company's eye logo was absent from view. A viewer tuning in and finding Kuralt where one would expect Rather got the message that CBS News did not attach that much importance to the event. Even according to the competitive rules by which networks play, the Rather gap represents sloppy thinking; his position in the ratings as the No. 1 anchor is not so secure that it should lead to overconfidence.
Technically, the domain is Kuralt's because "Sunday Morning" is a scheduled news broadcast. The network could easily have preempted it for special events coverage anchored by Rather, however. Kuralt is not at his best anchoring live coverage of breaking events, and to make the network's coverage still worse (indeed, uncharacteristically the worst), correspondent Bill Plante could barely be heard rattling away from Germany because of transatlantic audio problems. As Plante talked, the camera sat transfixed by him, while at that moment ABC and NBC were showing live pictures from in and around the Air Force base.
The tantalizing question to be asked regarding Reagan's comportment was: How could it possibly have been any better? Given the corner into which Reagan had been painted, he made a graceful and dignified attempt to escape. There was much speculation among media folk last week about how Reagan would wriggle out of the public disfavor that had greeted his plans to visit Bitburg Cemetery and the subsequently announced plan to "balance" that visit with a longer one to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Late in the week, the word was out: "He's going to cry at Bergen-Belsen." That is what some network sources had heard -- that Reagan's speech at the concentration camp would be so passionately delivered that it would help neutralize the offensiveness of the cemetery visit. In fact, Reagan did not cry but did gulp with emotion during the most dramatic portion of the speech. Referring to the 5,000 victims of the Holocaust buried at the site, Reagan said, "Here they lie -- never to hope, never to pray, never to love, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry."
His dramatic pause followed "never to hope." Ironically, ABC News, when it aired excerpts from the speech, did not show the president speaking at this portion of the address. Instead, ABC had chosen to illustrate parts of the speech with historic film shot at the concentration camp. The president spoke over the stark footage as if narrating it. This touch had the effect of punching up the speech, the kind of thing the White House itself might have inserted. It seemed an attempt to make the president's remarks more effective and dramatic than they already were. Thus it was improper practice, more cinematic than journalistic, and unnecessary at that. Reagan needs no help from ABC to make a strong impression. It should not have been offered.
Because Reagan himself and some of his aides are so wise in the wiles of media, it has become common for TV reporters to take note of the calculation that goes into the president's appearances. (One should keep in mind that a president who did not tailor himself to the tube would be hooted at as naive and foolhardy.) Plante of CBS noted, "This is a White House that thinks that pictures are much more important than words," and said that while the president's delivery of the Bergen-Belsen speech sounded "a little flat at the scene," it would probably come across "a little bit better than that on television."
This was fair and appropriate comment. Correspondent Chris Wallace of NBC News chose, however, to go too far, and at an inappropriate moment.
"One thing I'd like to point out, Tom," Wallace told Brokaw after the 10-minute cemetery appearance, as the Reagan entourage was seen leaving the site, "is that what we've really seen here is the Reagan media machine working in reverse. No one is more skilled than they are at producing dramatic pictures and dramatic events . . . Frankly, one of the advance men said to me, 'We're going to go out of our way to give you bad camera angles on this one. We don't want a memorable moment or a memorable picture. And we really want people when they think of this day to think of the great drama of his speech at Bergen-Belsen and the speech . . . at Bitburg Air Force Base . . .
"This was really the Reagan team . . . trying to produce as undramatic a ceremony as possible," Wallace said. Brokaw responded with glum silence. However informatively sophisticated Wallace may have thought he was being, he ended up sounding whiny and petty on the air.
ABC's Peter Jennings had a different, perhaps more objectionable, whine. He disparaged the very coverage of which he was a part, referring scoldingly to "negative" journalism regarding Reagan during the live coverage and, later, on "This Week With David Brinkley" from Bonn, griping about "constant overreporting" of the Bitburg controversy. When you combine the thrust of these remarks with the "help" ABC tried to give the president with his Bergen-Belsen speech, you get the impression of a news organization that is already considered the White House favorite jumping into the administration's lap and playing the affectionate pooch.
In general, though, ABC's coverage was probably the least flawed of the day, perhaps in part because Jennings, so long the network's London correspondent, was back in Europe, where he feels at home.
Reagan is of course at home anywhere there is a camera to behold him. At the Air Force base, Reagan let Reagan be Reagan. All the elements of the quintessential Reagan speech were there -- the personalizing vignettes, the quotations from the terribly convenient supportive letter (this one from a "young girl about to be bas mitzvahed"), the tear-inducing Unca Ronald anecdotes (a private truce in a German cottage on Christmas Day 1944) and of course, of course, the reference to John F. Kennedy, though at least Reagan did not go to the extreme of saying "Ich Bin Ein Bitburger." But he got pretty close.
Pundits will subject the Reagan event to the usual skeptical postmortems, but it's awfully likely he inspired only admiration in most of those who saw him on television. As always, Reagan appeared disarmingly sincere. In the Bitburg speech, he managed to be repentant and unyielding at the same time. Kuralt sounded so cynical when he said of Reagan's concentration camp appearance, "He made a speech in which he seemed to be moved." When will they realize that, with Ronald Reagan, "seemed to be" and "was" are one and the same?
Besides the peculiar absence of Rather, there were other idiosyncratic notes in yesterday's coverage, some as minor but noticeable as the fact that NBC spelled "cemetery" wrong ("cemetary") in its first on-screen superimposed legend from Bitburg. This was corrected by the time of the next "super." Sam Donaldson, Mr. Surprise himself, dropped the Latin phrase "ad seriatim" into his comments to Jennings during coverage. Donaldson also said of Reagan, "If you scratch Teflon, it begins to peel," but scratches and peels were not much in evidence.
NBC invited Elie Wiesel, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council, to watch the president and comment. At one point, Wiesel was inserted into the lower left-hand corner of the screen as he viewed the unfolding events, a dubious device that seemed to call on Wiesel to react in some very visual, demonstrative way. He sensibly just sat and watched. Someone at NBC had decided that all its correspondents should pronounce the German town's name as "Bit-bourg," but the other networks stuck with "Bit-burg."
At ABC, meanwhile, the image of Jennings was chroma-keyed over scenes from the cemetery and the Air Force base, and these shots occasionally changed with such dizzying speed that it appeared Jennings was on a whirlwind video tour of Europe. At one point he vanished altogether, with an inaudible poof.
Whether the networks will pay as much attention to the rest of President Reagan's European trip as they did to his stay in Germany remains to be seen. It is hard to imagine ways that those who retain their passionate objections to the Bitburg visit can remain in the public eye without in fact doing harm to their own case. On the other hand, even conservative Reaganite George Will acknowledged, on last week's Brinkley show, that the meeting that brought Reagan to Europe had turned into "the cemetery summit," and the subject is probably doomed to haunt the president.
After excerpts from Reagan's Bitburg speech were shown on "Sunday Morning," CBS paused for a commercial break, and viewers heard jingle singers trilling a tune that referred to an imagined American victory over foreign cars, but which seemed under the circumstances to have other implications. Sang the chorus: "It's over, over there." Oh is it?