As the Beirut hostage crisis goes on, television coverage of it seems bound to get worse. Yesterday the networks' scramble for particles, wisps and snippets of information led them to excessive reliance on peripheral figures to the story -- friends of friends of families of hostages -- and another day of ring-around-the-expert, as authorities on terrorism took turns on each channel.
Sometimes the experts seem supplied by Central Casting, as if they're shadowy figures who come out into the light only during such moments of national alarm. Henry Kissinger, no shadow, made it to all three networks, but as a paid consultant to ABC, he did his first appearances there. Viewers could catch Kissinger on "Nightline," "Good Morning America," then later on the "Today" show and the "CBS Evening News," where Dan Rather was playing host to more experts than the Aspen Institute.
Viewers may have felt they were seeing just one great network with interchangeable experts. When reporters start grilling other reporters, you know they've run out of actual news. The dilemma for the networks is that they all admit they have information they are withholding from the public, for the sake of the hostages still in custody and the fragility of the situation generally. What they do put on the air sometimes has all the substance of helium.
But they are a part of the story they are covering, and easy as it is to criticize them -- just as it's easy to criticize the way the administration is handling the crisis -- it's much more difficult to come up with the proverbial Better Way. The fact is, all three have been doing an admirable job under exasperating circumstances.
Yesterday, executives of all three network news divisions denied the suspicion, now lingering in the air as the crisis goes on, that the coverage has been excessive; that not its quality but its quantity is the problem.
"I don't think there's been too much," said Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports. "I can't speak to the totality of coverage, but we have tried to go on air only when there was something of significance to report. There are so many facets to this story, it's so complex, that it takes time to cover it. We are approaching it not in the context of a national emergency but as a very serious situation that deserves attention."
Edward M. Joyce, president of CBS News, said of the television coverage, "I certainly don't think it's excessive. At a time of an international incident like this, we have a responsibility to act as a clearinghouse of information. People expect that of television; that's the role we occupy in the second half of this century.
"I certainly understand that this era of rapid, even instantaneous, communication makes life immensely more complex for the leaders of nations," Joyce said. "They no longer have the luxury of waiting for the packet boat to arrive with the latest communique'. They have to operate in real time. That's a fact of life today. It would be irresponsible of us not to cover this story."
Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, is on vacation, but vice president Timothy J. Russert said his network was exercising restraint in the number of "interrupts," or bulletins, that it aired. "You don't want to artificially excite the viewer," Russert said. "We're there to report the news. There's no reason to go on the air unless there is something new to report. Otherwise, it can take the form of self-promotion instead of a news report. As the situation grows static you'll see fewer and fewer interrupts."
All three networks are voluntarily withholding some information about the crisis because they have been asked to do so by Defense Department officials, the executives said. "There are a couple of things which we believe to be true which we have not reported," Arledge said. "I suspect the hijackers have been more brutal than so far reported, but so far that's only a guess."
Joyce said, "We don't want to do anything that would jeopardize the hostages" and added that "some pieces of information" are being withheld by government request and in line with that philosophy.
"At least twice we have been asked to refrain from broadcasting information which officials thought might be threatening, and of course, we complied," Russert said. Asked if there had been official complaints about anything that was revealed, Russert said, "There was an informal expression of concern after we reported that the Delta Force had left the United States, but everyone reported that, and since their job is to respond to crises like this, it was not unexpected that they would leave."
Yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America," host David Hartman debriefed ABC anchor Peter Jennings. In the course of that almost pointless encounter, one point was made by Jennings concerning the coverage itself: "We've got to be very careful not to feed the public anger," he said. Arledge was asked if this is a theme of ABC coverage. He said, "We want to prevent as much as possible people jumping to the gun that this is 'another Iran.' There are similarities to Iran but mainly there's a lack of similarities. We have tried to make that clear."
At times it was impossible for the networks to make much about the situation very clear. Misinformation was reported as rumor -- merely the whereabouts of the hostages was the subject of much confusion and conflicting reports -- and later corrected, or replaced with other apparent misinformation. CBS News anchor Dan Rather, as usual, seemed to go the furthest in qualifying reports. On one broadcast he said that one item concerning the whereabouts of some of the hostages was "reportedly, allegedly, supposedly" true. Joyce said there is a conscious effort to qualify because of difficulties in getting definitive news out of Beirut.
Arledge said that in terms of official complaints about coverage, "I'm not aware of any at all. It's actually kind of the opposite. The government, early on, was getting a lot of information from us." News reports on all three networks have included footage of members of hostages' families keeping vigil before television screens and waiting there for the latest information.
"We have the TV on 24 hours a day," the daughter of one hostage told CBS News.
For the nation, that vigil may now be relaxing. While "Good Morning America" devoted virtually its entire Monday broadcast to the coverage, it yesterday gave 21.5 minutes over to other, unrelated features. NBC's "Today" show jumped that gun by a day. On its Monday broadcast, while both "GMA" and the "CBS Morning News" stuck to the hostage story, "Today" found room for interviews with actress Brooke Shields, who lavishly plugged her new book, and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Russert said yesterday that it was executive producer Steve Friedman's decision "and if he's satisfied, we're satisfied."
Friedman was more than satisfied. "In the morning, to keep saying the same thing over and over is not a service to anybody," Friedman said. "I will defend quality over quantity any day of the week." Friedman said there was no point in prolonging coverage when no new facts were available, and scored his competitors for doing so. "Like I said when Chernenko died, the only thing longer than his reign was the show CBS did about him," said Friedman. "You have to think of the viewers, who get tired of hearing the same old stuff."
According to 10-city overnight ratings, Friedman said, the "Today" show did 29 percent better Monday than it did the previous week, while CBS was only up 17 percent and ABC only 18 percent. "So to paraphrase Dan Rather," Friedman said, "when it's important, they turn to 'Today.' "
But NBC News has been embarrassed by the absence of its principal anchor, Tom Brokaw, who would have gone up against Rather and Jennings on this crucial, commanding story. Brokaw is in Africa on vacation. "He's only a Lear Jet away," Russert said. "If we asked him to come back, he would." But it was decided that NBC's "good bench" reporters could handle the story. "If you subscribe to the romantic view of living out a story with one anchor person, that's a problem, but I don't subscribe to that view," Russert said. It isn't known how this has hurt NBC competitively because "there's no ratings for interrupts," said Russert.
The fact remains that Brokaw, paid in excess of $1.5 million a year for his services, was wildly conspicuous by his absence.
Of the three morning shows, it was probably the "CBS Morning News" that looked the worst yesterday. Indeed, the program seemed to be dismantling on the air. Cohost Phyllis George was absent because of the death of her father-in-law. Someone then made the mysterious decision to promote new arrival Terrence Smith, who crossed the line from print to television less than six months ago, to the position of coanchor with veteran broadcast correspondent Bob Schieffer, who would disappear from the program for minutes at a stretch while Smith took over. Smith did not seem experienced enough to handle the various panels of experts smoothly. One of his problems is that he appears to be bored except when he himself is talking. CBS generally has been top-heavy with experts because Joyce said he thinks they help provide "context."
On the other hand, another new arrival to the program, reporter Faith Daniels, showed herself unaffected and adept at anchoring and at fielding reports from correspondents at various listening posts. She was an authoritative cool head.
The "Today" show demonstrated again that a major advantage it has over the competitors is that it has two able, serious, intelligent anchors -- Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley -- instead of just one. But David Hartman's contributions on "Good Morning America" should not be overlooked. While the father-confessor intimacy that Hartman tries to fake with guests can be squirm-inducing, he has handled himself beautifully during this crisis whether talking with Henry Kissinger or with the relative of a hostage. Indeed, Hartman may have done the best broadcast interviews of the crisis -- with Robert Peel Sr., a freed hostage.
ABC's Jennings stumbled into something of a low point, however, when White House correspondent Sam Donaldson said the administration reacted with harsh language to what it called the "piecemeal" release, and exploitation, of the hostages, and Jennings asked him, "Any explanation, Sam, of what 'piecemeal' means?" Maybe Pete was abroad just a couple of days too long.
Reporters could not seem to agree on the correct pronunciation of "Stethem," last name of Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, brutally murdered by the hijackers, but the network coverage of reaction by his family and friends was dramatic and yet civilized. The networks have been criticized in the past for intrusions upon private mourning. Arledge said yesterday, "What we try to do is keep a decent distance from people. In most cases, they come out and talk to the cameras."
Monday's "CBS Evening News" opened with a shot of Navy officers arriving at the Stethem home with their tragic news while Dan Rather said, "The visit that everyone fears." The camera did not follow the officers onto the porch or through the door of the home. That it did keep its distance made this picture a perfect, heartbreaking, crystallized moment in the whole sad unfolding story. Another such moment, less eloquent but bitingly succinct, occurred in one of the person-on-the-street "bumpers" used by the "CBS Morning News" as a bridge between the program and its commercial breaks. A middle-aged man in a cowboy hat said in reaction to the crisis, "I don't know about the world today. It seems there's no respect for anything. No respect."