Strange. Eerie. Almost uncanny. Nobody seems very furious at the media this morning, and here we have just come through another hostage crisis together.
The hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro is over. But the usual chorus of outrage over network behavior has yet to begin. One reason is that, although one American passenger was murdered by the terrorists, the crisis seems to have ended as an American victory. Once U.S. Navy jet fighters intercepted the Egyptian plane on which the terrorists were fleeing, the story became one of "us" licking "them" for a change.
Bob Simon summed up the mood of America as network correspondents are wont to do on a bluntly jubilant "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" last night when he said, "It was the first time in a long time that America had done something that was daring, and audacious, and that worked."
As for Rather himself, a merry old soul was he. He introduced the last story on the newscast by saying, "Whoo boy, it's been another week when terrorism has gripped us all."
On "NBC Nightly News," correspondent Tom Pettit said, "Today, at least, the country felt good about itself," and suggested the incident helped make up for the humiliation of Vietnam.
It is not popular practice to behead messengers who bring, if not unmitigated good news, at least seemingly happy endings. Still, you'd think that there would at least be a little face-slapping of the messenger going on. One reason there isn't is that the crisis did not continue long enough for network news forces to whip themselves up into excessive hysterics.
But another reason is that even some people at the networks will admit they learned a few lessons from our June terrorist crisis, when 39 Americans were held captive in Beirut. After it ended, the networks were accused of bad taste on the one hand and execrable judgment on the other. The terrorists seemed to be playing the networks like synthesizers.
"There's no doubt that at least subliminally, the Beirut hostage crisis had a very restraining -- not a chilling, but a restraining -- effect on all three anchors this time," one high-ranking network news executive said yesterday. He did not want to be identified because it is considered bad form at network news divisions to admit ever having made a mistake. Even to imply an admission of having made a mistake is considered a mistake.
From his office on New York, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings said yesterday of the crisis, "Well, it has certainly been short. I have not detected any frenzy in anybody's coverage of it. We have all of us, I think, been considerably more restrained about jumping on and off the air." Jennings meant there were fewer "interrupts" of programming for special reports and such. Once on the air, did he feel himself exercising more restraint than the last time? "I'm a restrained fellow anyway," Jennings said. "I did not look back at all at a previous instance in terms of actually being on the air."
We may never know if Dan Rather used the by-now familiar cautionary phrase "Here is what we think we know" more during this crisis than he did during the last one. But he used it plenty.
On the day the story broke, Jennings said, he and the staff of "World News Tonight" did take Beirut into consideration when planning that night's broadcast. "We sat in my office and went over the rundown. My concern was, did we have too many items on this one story? One of my problems the last time was that we miss other news when other things get our attention to this extent."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of NBC's "Today Show," said from his office, "I think there was more restraint shown this time, for various reasons. One, because of last time. Two, because this one only lasted two days. And three, because we really didn't get to know these people, the hostages, so it wasn't as good a story."
Friedman made it clear that he did not think the coverage of Beirut was anything to be ashamed of -- not even the aftershocks, when he dispatched producers to corral hostages and their families in limousines and hotel rooms supplied by NBC so as to ensure interview scoops for his show. "I thought we all did a good job last time. There may have been too much of the hostage families, though," he said. "I think the network interrupts were excessive. When people come on to say 'There's nothing new to report' and then repeat all the old stuff, that's bad."
There were "a lot less network interrupts" this time, Friedman said. Of course the networks did not have the access they had last time to hostages and the media-wise terrorists. They did not have live shots to compare with those of the hijacked airplane as it sat on a runway at the Beirut airport. "All you could see is an exterior of a boat for two days," Friedman said. Even then, it was mostly file footage of the Achille Lauro in another port.
Friedman said one area where much more restraint was shown this time was in the blowing of network horns. "There was a conscious effort, at least in this place, to pull back on the publicity mill," Friedman said. "It wasn't so go-get-'em this time. The hype surrounding the coverage has changed. Nobody kept saying 'We were the first to report' this or that."
Jennings said he wasn't aware of the networks calling off their publicists, but said, "I'm anti that kind of publicity anyway." Jennings was the anchor for ABC's continuing coverage of the crisis, as he was last time. He appeared Thursday night at the beginning of the network's "20/20" magazine show (seriously delaying a tired old piece on curing baldness) to report on the latest developments.
NBC took the unusual and, considering the fervor of sports fans, risky step of interrupting a National League playoff game Thursday night for a report by anchor Tom Brokaw on the whereabouts of the hijackers. By the time the game was interrupted (about 11:10 p.m.), the Dodgers were beating the Cardinals 8 to 1 anyway (the final score was 8 to 2), so the traditional lighting up of the switchboard was averted.
After Brokaw left the air, game announcer Vin Scully thanked him for the report and remarked that news about terrorists and American hostages made even playoff games seem trivial by comparison. NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman was so impressed with that, he phoned the booth and asked that Scully, still on the air, be congratulated for the way he handled it.
If they had had more time, the networks might have turned this hostage crisis into a circus and a soap opera like last time. The fact that they were denied access to the hostages during the crisis helped prevent them from making the same mistakes they made in Beirut. That of course does not mean that the next hostage crisis won't offer them new opportunities for error and excess. But for now, we are living in an era of good feeling.
Whoo boy, we just love those networks when they tell us we've won.