Of course, the big question remains: Will there be retaliation? Not against the terrorists. Against the networks.
As America shakes off the long marathon of hostage coverage, and as the networks take a few last whacks at accusing one another of unethical conduct, the painful ordeal plunges toward instant distance, the kind television grants to national obsessions once they have run their course. It could be that the hostage crisis had to be wrapped up this weekend simply because the viewing public was getting sick of it.
It was, after all, longer than "A.D." and "Space" put together.
Hostage family interviews will linger, of course. The "Today" show, criticized by its competitors for underwriting the air fare and hotel stays of hostage family members, will have at least three more hostage family interviews today. Yesterday Jane Pauley nitwittedly suggested to the inescapable Allyn Conwell, square-jawed hostage "spokesman," that in many eyes he was "a hero." Conwell, meanwhile, made his strongest statement to date about the killing by the hijackers of an American sailor. He said, "We didn't find the murder pleasant."
Phyllis George, on "The CBS Morning News," suggested a little later that Conwell is likely to run for political office. She didn't say political office where, leaving that open to a viewer's interpretation. Lebanon, perhaps? Syria, maybe?
The networks have shifted into happy gear now. You could sprain an eardrum trying to hear a disparaging word now that most of the hostages are home. Mindless gaga and emotional gush seem the mainstays of the moment. When will the festive denouement finally subside? "There'll be an orgy of homecomings," one network news producer said yesterday, "then of course the Big July Fourth on the White House lawn. By July 7th, it'll be forgotten."
Considerations of media performance during the crisis may persist a little longer. ABC News announced yesterday that it has scheduled a special edition of its answer-back "Viewpoint" program for Tuesday, July 30, with the topic to be "Media Coverage of the Hostage Crisis." Ted Koppel will moderate. By then, most of the passion will probably be gone out of the argument. Indeed, it may be gone already. Even when the crisis itself was in full swing, the hostage-taking didn't seem to inflame the American public, in part because we could see the hostages and their captors all but nuzzling on the air as the crisis grew old, in part perhaps because persistent exposure to televised calamities has given us all asbestos sensibilities.
Television turns everything into television; it denatures events, even tragedies. It tidies up calamity and cools it out. One week a jokey, campy massacre on "Dynasty," a few weeks later news film of a real massacre on a network newscast. It's hard to keep one's bearings in videoland.
"We've decriminalized terrorism," moaned one Capitol Hill observer of the networks yesterday. At the networks, they dread the thought of being called on the carpet by Congress again over something like this. That seems unlikely, no matter how mad people are now -- unless stories of payoffs by news organizations to Amal sources proliferate in the days ahead.
What remained heated yesterday were tales from within the networks of these alleged bequests to the Amal in Beirut for this or that piece of alleged assistance. As journalists return from Lebanon, they bring stories of wheeling and dealing with them -- $20,000 for this interview, $50,000 for that hostage farewell party. All the stories remain at this point rumors. One network executive conceded yesterday that when it came to offering some sort of creature-comfort inducements to members of hostage families for interviews, "we're all a little bit pregnant." Maybe they'll all prove to be a little bit pregnant on payments to news sources as well.
"Of course," said the Capitol Hill observer, "they all do encyclicals on the evils of what they're doing as they go along. There are lots of deathbed confessions at the networks. But let's face it; they'll never change their ways."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of the "Today" show, said he had "a lot of regrets about the coverage." First, "it took place in a location where the networks are not properly staffed," Friedman said. "Also, I certainly have a problem with running a lot of propaganda from the hijackers on the air. I have a problem with all the network interrupts when there was nothing new to report. I have a problem with David Hartman calling up hostages on the phone and chatting with them because he'd heard that Dan Rather was about to interview them, and with ABC chartering a plane to fly Mrs. Conwell to Cyprus and then a week later saying it was wrong for us to fly families over for interviews.
"And," Friedman said, "I have a problem that any of this happened in the first place. The more coverage something like this gets, the more somebody sitting out there watching says, 'You know, this is a good way to get on television.' "
Perhaps the next stage of world terrorism by television will be when terrorists get their own earth station and TV studio and can uplink their own propaganda to the world, using hostages as mere props and not necessarily as mouthpieces. Bernard Goldberg, one of the brainier network correspondents, looked at the lunacy of the whole 17-day TV spectacle last night in a biting piece for "The CBS Evening News" that ended with shots of two terrorists staging their own self-aggrandizing talk show with sacks over their heads. Goldberg called it "the theater of the absurd." The networks had in effect been in the ticket-selling business during the entire run of the show.
America has been through ordeal by television again. In the earlier days of this crisis, it was ordeal by ordeal, as news of the hijacking, and of the murder of Robert Dean Stethem, was momentarily crowded off the screen by shocking film of massacred Americans in El Salvador and the devastation wreaked by a terrorist bombing of Frankfurt Airport. The world, it might well have appeared to the attentive viewer, is too mad to be dealt with rationally. Perhaps the greatest danger is that numbness will set in, a sense of resignation and hopelessness. Maybe it set in a long time ago. Maybe we're always in a state of media shock.
There is a kind of consensus among knowledgeable network sources, at least when caught in unguarded moments, about individual network performance during this crisis. NBC fared the worst, it is said, partly because it tried to persist without the presence of its anchor (his identity is irrelevant to the problem, but the anchor of course is Tom Brokaw, on safari and strangely unavailable for the first 10 days of the coverage). Many viewers seemed inclined toward anchor Peter Jennings and his effetely self-conscious aura of erudition, but the ABC image was tarnished along the way by what seemed increasingly mysterious circumstances surrounding the "scoops" it got with Amal cooperation.
Dan Rather, unlike Tom Brokaw, would let nothing keep him away from a story like this; "If he'd been on a nuclear submarine, he would have had them fire him home in a Polaris missile," one industry insider noted. Rather and Jennings logged the most impressive number of hours on the air. Late Sunday night, Rather reached a crescendo, at the conclusion of live coverage of the hostages' landing in Frankfurt, when his voice cracked and his eyes glistened as he volunteered thoughts on the contrasts between cowardice and courage he saw within the story. CBS has the strongest correspondents and the king of all the anchors, but ABC probably gained the most competitively with its aggressive coverage.
The fact is, other than the genuine bravery shown by some of the reporters and technical crews on the scene in Beirut, none of the networks has a great deal to be proud of as this dismaying story is wrapped up and put away.
Attempts to extract lessons, much less meaning, from it all may finally prove futile in the end, and besides, there will be another crisis along eventually to displace it from prominence. The networks were ferociously competitive as they covered the story, yes, but no more so than three newspapers in the same big city would have been over some hot local scandal or catastrophe. Yesterday there was much aftermath coverage, but news time was also reclaimed by other stories. The great hostage crisis of the Summer of '85 will recede from the spotlight and be replaced by different news. There is no reason now to assume the next such crisis will be handled any differently by anybody. If all we learn from history is that we do not learn, all we remember from television is that we do not remember.