You have to wonder if the networks will be sorry to see this hostage crisis end. They're having such an exciting time with it; they're getting such good stuff out of Beirut. The networks are wearing the hostages like charms on a bracelet. Whenever the terrorists make them available for interviews, the networks greet them with open arms and open microphones.
CBS reported last night that the White House had let it be known it was considering asking the networks to refrain from broadcasting hostage interviews because they were proving "terribly harmful" to negotiations. The networks showed no indication yesterday that they would comply, even if asked directly.
"Good morning, David. Good morning, America. This is Allyn Conwell," one of the hostages said with professional-broadcaster finesse to David Hartman yesterday morning on ABC's "Good Morning, America." Conwell was speaking live to Hartman by phone from the office of Nabih Berri, the Shiite Moslem leader thrust with no visible reluctance on his part into the spotlight to play the role Sadegh Ghotbzadeh played in a previous ordeal, the Iranian hostage crisis. Summer is the time for reruns, it seems.
Conwell told Hartman, "You're very popular . . . with viewers . . . so we recommended that he Berri speak to you." Hartman and Berri were on the horn for the longest time. Hartman eagerly assumed the anchor-mediator role: "Mr. Berri, any final words to President Reagan this morning?"
Later yesterday Dan Rather could be seen on CBS talking to the same hostages. This time there were pictures of them as Rather asked questions about what messages they had for Reagan and "What would you like President Reagan to do?" The networks are interviewing the hostages as if they were official U.S. emissaries perfectly free to speak their minds.
Isn't airing the remarks of a hostage totally under terrorist control the same thing as giving the terrorist himself access to the American people through television? The Amal appears increasingly shrewd in the ways of media and is parceling out these show-window hostage interviews with considerable cunning. The dismaying thing is how willingly the networks go along for the ride.
The Amal has its own press secretary, Shiek Hassan Masri, who has posted a notice in a Beirut hotel being used as headquarters by the media: "The Central Press Bureau of the Amal declares that all film taken of the hostages can be used freely by all press agencies and television networks." In other words, the terrorists were proclaiming all hostage footage, including ABC's so-called "exclusives," to be pool coverage, so that it can appear on not just one network but all three.
The coverage is now part circus, part soap opera, and the networks have shown themselves more interested in emotionally exploitable material -- the "drama" of the event -- than in the actual gleaning of information, which tends to be minimal and sketchy, if not wrong. ABC reported that Berri said he would release ailing hostage Simon Grossmayer yesterday morning, but as of yesterday evening, Grossmayer's status was vague and sources at other networks were referring to the report as "erroneous."
An ABC News spokesman said late yesterday that a high-ranking Amal official had given ABC "and some other journalists" the news that Grossmayer would be released and that he may be released some time today.
Perhaps partly out of guilt over the role they are playing in the crisis, network anchors and personalities are making the dilemmas posed by coverage a part of the story. After a seemingly endless telephone chat with Berri and three hostages, all live, on "Good Morning America," and after airing a conversation with hostage Conwell and his wife, who was on camera from Cyprus ("Hello, Allyn, how are you?"), David Hartman inflated himself into a state of high solemnity and told cohost Joan Lunden that when it came to ethical questions regarding the coverage, "I have been deeply concerned from Day One." Oh, that makes us feel so much better.
In what sounded like rationalization for having played the melodramatic aspects of the story all too big during the preceding hour, Hartman said, "To some extent, we have been used. On the other hand, we can't turn around and say 'No, we're not going to report what's going on.' "
Earlier he had intoned, "All of us at ABC continue to be concerned about our involvement in all of this."
Meanwhile, on "The CBS Morning News," Dan Rather himself made a visitation and seemed to be criticizing ABC and Hartman for putting the hostages on live because in such a case, he told Bob Schieffer, "suddenly their captors can come on and say something. We just think we have to keep control of the air and that's why we didn't put it on live."
Schieffer: "We're not turning this network over to the terrorists."
Rather: "Well, exactly."
Rather was asked yesterday if the remark were directed toward Hartman. "It wasn't," Rather said. "I didn't know Hartman had been on live with the hostages at that point." But he and CBS News vice president Howard Stringer also said that the CBS interview with the same three hostages went through a painstaking editing process before being aired and that this was considered a safer approach to take. Stringer said network news executives "agonized over it for six hours."
"This is uncharted water in a lot of ways," Rather said of the difficulties inherent in covering the story, now two weeks old. "The one absolutely essential thing to remember is that the circumstances of each case vary. There are no specific self-executing rules for handling these kinds of stories. You can't codify ethics and policies on a case-to-case basis. We make mistakes but we try to think these things through."
Rather said he personally argued against showing hostage footage made available for broadcast last Monday. It showed 12 hostages talking among themselves under terrorist guard. But the footage was aired, Rather said, because it established the whereabouts and wellbeing of hostages whose fates had not been previously reported.
On Thursday, Rather and CBS News interrupted afternoon programming for the big scoop that one of the hostages, copilot of the plane, was suffering from an infected spider bite. Rather defended airing that item on grounds that it helped dispel earlier rumors that "a dying man" was among the crew members. The report that aired also included news of an Israeli cabinet meeting, Rather said.
Later Thursday, ABC, with bounteous hoopla, aired extended portions of a 90-minute interview conducted with three of the hostages in Beirut by correspondent Charles Glass. Cohost Hugh Downs said of the hostages, "They are showing incredible courage," and that the interview, "a profile of remarkable courage," would reveal "new details of their terror" and "a fresh sense of the ordeal they are going through."
The interview produced little news but a number of tidbits. Hostage Ralf Traugott, the most telegenic of the group so far, said that once he went into the bathroom on the plane only to discover that a terrorist who had preceded him there had left a 9 mm pistol "on the toilet." Traugott said he did not touch the gun but notified the man who had forgotten it.
This is not real news. This is feelie news. This is "how does it feel" stuff, chitchat and gossip, that adds nothing to the information count.
Conwell, most talkative of the bunch, said as part of the interview, which was conducted in a busy bistro, "My compliments to the restaurant our hosts have brought us to today . . . Personally, I'm very thankful for the way we've been treated." Conwell told Hartman the next morning that he was "sympathetic to the Amal movement" and that the hostages' fate was "in the hands of the Israeli people and the American administration."
The Rev. James McLoughlin criticized a "lack of initiatives" by the United States in securing the hostages' freedom and in the Rather interview picked up the theme of blaming the Israelis. He said the U.S. government should be concerned about its own people over and above "special interests outside of our nation" and said Reagan should ask Israel to free "those 700 Lebanese detainees." The broadcasting of such loose-lipped remarks could turn American public opinion against Israel and further hamper efforts to negotiate a settlement.
As part of the self-justification operation, Rather asked McLoughlin, "Should we . . . stop doing these kinds of interviews?" (answer from McLoughlin: no) and "You think these kinds of interviews are all right?" (answer from McLoughlin -- another big surprise -- yes).
Last night, on "The CBS Evening News," Rather carefully prefaced interview excerpts by telling viewers, "You may want to keep in mind that these men spoke as prisoners."
NBC News seemed to be showing the most restraint in airing hostage interviews, but its competitors could be heard scoffing that NBC had just been beaten on stories. Timothy Russert, executive vice president of NBC News, dismissed the charges of "sour grapes" as being sour grapes themselves and said, "We have to be extremely cautious now, careful that we not lose sight of what a news organization is supposed to be doing, which is reporting the news, rather than giving the appearance of having invented a new category in the Battle of the Network Stars -- 'Get the Hostage,' or 'Film the Hostage.' "
Stringer, however, defended the airing of hostage interviews no matter how seemingly spurious. "Everybody knows those guys are under duress," Stringer said. Of the coverage, and the fact that the hostages are asked to speak directly to the American people and the American government, Stringer said, "It makes diplomacy hard, yes, but it doesn't make it impossible. Besides it's part of what we're all about, isn't it? Concern for the individual person."
A final defense to which the networks are bound to resort is that putting on this or that hostage interview is good television. There is a serious question now, however, whether good television is always good journalism and, more importantly in such a precarious situation, whether it is good citizenship.
Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, thinks the networks have leaped upon the hostage story with a glitzy vengeance that has in effect obliterated most other news. "They've decided this is The Big Story and they're blacking out everything else," Nader said earlier this week. "When a story like this comes along, the networks really should add another 30 minutes to their regular news, but they don't. Instead they add 30 minutes at 11:30 and then they devote that to hostage news as well."
Nader says the networks have shown "total monomania" in hewing to the story even when there is no news to report. "The hostage story is an extremely slow story in terms of news developments," Nader said. "They're stretching it to obscene limits, and they've imposed a news blackout on all other stories. Everything suffers. Everything. All they care about is who scooped who and who got to Kissinger first -- before they turned him into a mimeograph machine."
(One network journalist, asked to respond to Kissinger's own complaints about the television coverage, laughed, "Kissinger has appeared on the television screen almost as much as the aircraft in Beirut".)
Nader's complaints were dismissed by various network sources who said he was only interested in seeing his pet causes covered. Nader said that among the stories all but ignored by the networks during the hostage crisis have been a House vote to resume production of nerve gas for chemical warfare and continuing debate over the Pentagon budget. He predicted that there will be "added billions in military authorizations" because the networks have focused the nation's attention away from the issue.
On goes the coverage, on come the hostages to say hello to their loved ones and make remarks calculated not to offend their murderous captors, and on come the networks with report after report devoted more to updates on hostage moods and ailments than on the deeper complexities, ramifications and humiliations of this crisis.
It could well be that the parading of these coached and controlled hostages across American television screens day after day, night after night -- the networks eager and unquestioning customers -- is more of a national humiliation than was the original seizing of the plane. That the terrorists beat and murdered an American Navy diver early in the crisis seems all but forgotten in what the correspondents and the hostages say now. McLoughlin told Hartman, "This is beyond terrorism," suggesting that the terrorism was over.
The terrorism goes on. It's just that the networks have turned it into a global-village talk show.
Of all the words spoken on the air, among the most passionate and affecting this week were those of Barbara Rosen, wife of one of the Iranian hostages, invited onto the "CBS Morning News" and balking at the role she knew the network boys wanted her to play. "I told the producer ahead of time, I would not come on and talk about 'what it's like to be a hostage's wife,' " Rosen said angrily on the air to a shocked Terence Smith. "This isn't a drama. This isn't something that's on Broadway. This is a real-life crisis."
Rosen has not been invited back to discuss this further. It's not what the networks want us to hear right now.