Dan Rather was discussing the summit from Geneva on "The CBS Evening News." He said, "It has been talked nearly to death even before it begins." Then he continued talking about it.
Media Summit '85 rolls into its fifth big day today, and network insiders expect that at last there will actually be some news to report. Up until now, there hasn't been much, and yet there's still been lots of high-profile TV. The first sight of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev shaking hands and smiling was a stunning moment of symbolism. Even if the summit story never got beyond that, it would have been worth the great media migration that turned Geneva into the news center of the world this week.
U.S. and Soviet officials imposed a so-called "news blackout" on Tuesday, but that didn't stop the networks. They'd had no news up to then anyway, really; they continued to vamp inventively. Correspondents interviewed correspondents, analysts analyzed analysis. Late yesterday, the networks heard in a briefing from White House spokesman Larry Speakes that the finale to this very ceremonial week would be, appropriately enough, a ceremony.
"The president and the general secretary will hold a ceremony tomorrow at 10 a.m.," Speakes told the networkers last night. The photo-opportunity summit neared its conclusion with yet one more round of Romancing the Lens.
This had been the World Series of lens romancing. Much of the talk at the summit was about managing the press, dealing with the press, about how savvy and canny Gorbachev was with the press, about how all this was being played on Soviet television, and so on. One network news executive yesterday tried to distinguish between the summit and "the PR [public relations] of the summit," but couldn't the case be made that the PR of the summit was the summit?
There may have been a news blackout, but there was no public relations blackout.
Gorbachev threw the hungry networks a bone when he decided to meet with Jesse Jackson. Not to downplay the status of Jackson, but clearly this meet-ing took place so that it could be photographed; the meeting was secondary to its transmission having taken place. The Soviets thought this would serve their propaganda needs in the United States as well as elsewhere, but network sources said yesterday the Soviet media managers realized the gesture didn't quite have the impact they'd hoped for. "They freaked," the source said. And they backed off the story.
Still, for a minute they seemed to have taken an inning in the imagery play-offs. That was until Nancy Reagan showed up at the Red Cross for a pose-in with Raisa Gorbachev and seemed not to know (or, perhaps, pretended not to know) that Mrs. Gorbachev was already there. Mrs. Reagan gave one of "those old Hollywood double takes," as one network source privately described it, and sauntered over to Mrs. G while cameras clicked and whirred.
And so it went and went and went. Spokesmen for all three networks said yesterday they thought they'd been looking great. Certainly "The CBS Evening News" seemed the most vital and aggressive of the scheduled broadcasts from Geneva, but the media story of the week may have been the comeback of "The CBS Morning News," most perennial of also-rans. When it has one big story in which to submerge, the broadcast begins looking serious.
Anchor Forrest Sawyer proved a tough interviewer with U.S. and Soviet administration spokesmen (Vladimir Mikoyan to Sawyer: "Frankly, when we need advice, we'll ask for it"). Sawyer wasn't letting anybody get away with anything. At least nobody but Rather, who dropped by each day for slightly awkward debriefings from Sawyer. In New York, Maria Shriver held her own with Robert McNamara, among others. But the gung-ho "Today" show scooped all its competitors by being the only morning show to grab Jackson right after his talk with Gorbachev.
Responding to a compliment about how well he'd handled Soviet spokesmen who obviously didn't want to say anything, Sawyer said yesterday, "I don't think anybody wants to say anything, really. The idea is to maintain a presence."
Even Bill Moyers contributed to the "Morning News," though his best stuff, including a thoughtfully scathing commentary on the Gorbachev-Jackson meeting, was reserved for Rather's show. While John Chancellor on "NBC Nightly News" just sits there and talks, and disturbs a few air molecules, Moyers' commentaries are produced pieces that take him to visually relevant locations (a cathedral on Tuesday night) that enhance what he is saying. He has no real competition.
Rather and company were ensconced on the roof of the Metropole Hotel, which afforded a pointless view of nighttime traffic lights one assumed to be Genevan. On top of that, a space heater caught fire Tuesday night, one which Rather helped extinguish by swatting it with his script.
"He's not only America's foremost anchorman, he is also a saver of lives," blustered "Evening News" executive producer Lane Venardos from Geneva yesterday. Venardos was among those at CBS insisting that the network had traveled much lighter (in number of staff and amount of equipment) to Geneva than the competitors. "NBC and ABC each have six more crews" than the 13 that CBS brought, Venardos said, but an ABC News spokesman said from another Geneva hotel that ABC only brought 12 crews to Geneva -- fewer than CBS, not more.
Before the summit, CBS made a great fuss out of the fact that Rather flew to Geneva business class, but his plan for today is to fly back to the United States on the Concorde, so he can anchor tonight's coverage of President Reagan's address to Congress. At least two CBS colleagues will accompany him. The other two anchors have similar plans, depending on the timing of closing events in Geneva.
This kind of reverse one-downmanship one-upmanship continued, with NBC sources claiming to have spotted a lavish Mercedes limousine with Gucci interior rented by CBS News. "We have it on film!" crowed an NBC News executive. But by and large, this media summit has seen a sudden outbreak of Network Detente. Network spokesmen have proudly declared their refusal to bad-mouth the competition even though they had not been asked to do so anyway.
"Actually, we just don't see each other's broadcasts out of the corners of our eyes like we do in New York," said Bill Lord, executive producer of "World News Tonight" on ABC. "So the fun of instant analysis of each other is momentarily suspended." The era of good feeling did not prevent an NBC News wag from referring to ABC broadcasts as "The Battle of the Burberrys," a reference to fancy trench coats worn by Jennings, Steve Bell and others.
Jennings, just before his broadcast last night, said he'd had his coat for six years and that "My wife says it's shabby." He also said it was no surprise that the value of the summit was proving to be largely symbolic (he did a piece for "World News" before leaving for Geneva on the subject of how style can become substance in the media age) and defended his anchoring of the news outdoors on a chilly Geneva street. "I like to be outdoors," Jennings said. "If I could, I would do the news on a street corner every night of my life."
The network week had begun with fits and gaffes. The CBS Sunday program "Face the Nation" became a radio show with still pictures when satellite troubles intervened. Moderator Lesley Stahl reportedly threw an anchor-size tantrum when it was over. CBS News, as part of its very noisy cost-cutting bender, had saved about $9,000 by not ordering a backup satellite for the live program, but suffered mightily from embarrassment as a result of the snafu.
ABC News had a much smaller glitch. On "This Week With David Brinkley," Brinkley at one point told viewers that he and all his colleagues had come to "Vienna." Steve Bell made the same slip of the tongue the next day on a news segment of "Good Morning America." Off-screen, ABC News diplomatic correspondent John McWethy had to take a later plane than scheduled to Geneva last week because he got to the airport and realized he'd forgotten his passport. He called the State Department and asked if he could be met and shepherded into Geneva when he landed. They told him, according to Lord, "no," and to go home and get his passport.
"It is somewhat amusing seeing a large number of reporters sitting around having nothing to do," Jennings observed yesterday, but the reporters did have at least one thing to do: talk to other reporters who were doing stories about media at the summit. "We have had dozens of requests from foreign journalists to come in and observe what we're doing," said ABC News spokeswoman Elise Adde. "Finnish, Flemish, Dutch, French -- I've been showing them all around. They are all amazed at the technology."
Ron Reagan, the president's son, has been tailing Sam Donaldson of ABC News for a piece about media coverage to appear in Playboy magazine. Editors at CBS and NBC as usual have their work cut out for them in trying to edit Donaldson's booming voice out of photo opportunity footage in which President Reagan appeared so that they could disguise the fact that Donaldson had been asking all the good questions. Sam does maintain a presence.
Much is made, meanwhile, of Gorbachev's press-handling prowess, although it took Moyers to point out that Joe Stalin was initially considered a real swell guy by the media of his day, too. Bill Plante of CBS News reported that Gorbachev obviously knew "how to handle the public relations aspect" of the event, and Soviet political analyst Sergei Plekhanov said of Gorbachev on the "Morning News" that, "He has no problems with the press." David Gergen, of U.S. News & World Report, was called in to comment on the "propaganda wars" going on in Geneva.
The morning news shows may have been most competitive on this story, because with the U.S.-European time differences, each day's morning session had already been held when they signed on the air. ABC's "Good Morning America," which is produced by the network's entertainment division, had a summit of its own: a week's worth of pieces plugging the network's "Dynasty" and "Dynasty II" programs. Cohost Joan Lunden breathlessly promised viewers, "Our next hour: great moments from the first five years of 'Dynasty.' Plus, Barry Manilow."
"Good Morning America" is a good place to escape reality. But not a good place to escape David Hartman, who dominated the Geneva coverage to an almost ludicrous extent. One morning he did a live interview in Geneva followed by an interview via satellite with House Speaker Tip O'Neill in Washington followed by a taped interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York (this Mikhail was plugging a movie, incidentally, not a new image). Once Steve Bell threw it back to Dave when he was supposed to throw it back to Lunden. She sat there looking at a monitor while Hartman continued to rattle on.
Soviet expert Steven Cohen told Bryant Gumbel on the "Today" show, "There are two summits going on here" -- the real summit and the media summit. The question is, which is the larger, more significant event? With the likelihood of real, or at least meaningful, accords remote, and the major thrust of the summit having been Gorbachev's coming-out party as a slick media figure, the media may have become the story again. Perhaps the term "media event" should be retired on the grounds that if you ain't got the media, you ain't got an event.
"Good evening," said a famous comedian the other night, "I'm Johnny Carson, the only TV host not in Geneva." What we had been watching during the daytime was not just "Romancing the Lens," it was also "Romancing the Networks." They arrived in Geneva to cover a story and discovered they were it. The "news blackout" may have only been a trick to keep them interested. It worked.