Dictators of the world take note: Clean up your acts, or risk a U.S. media invasion. That may be one of the lessons to be gleaned from ongoing television coverage of the increasingly explosive situation in the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos thought he could go on television and defeat it. Instead he became the star of a continuing saga that played like a real-life version of "Sins." He played the sinner.
Americans are all too familiar with the role that television plays in U.S. politics. With its obsessive -- arguably excessive -- coverage of the Philippines, network television has reasserted itself on a global scale. Filipino political fates have been played out in interview after interview on U.S. newscasts and discussion programs. Revolution, it appears, can now take the form of serialized talk show.
Late yesterday, with rumors that Marcos had fled the country, revolution began to take on a more classic profile.
The media stampede to the Philippines continues. Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings went over for fact-finding missions on Election Day. Now video statesman Ted Koppel has arrived in full panoply for a series of "Nightline" reports that starts tonight, proving by his very presence that the networks mean business. And while he's there, for good measure he'll coanchor "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings, who will be in Moscow to cover the Communist Party Congress. The long arm of the media beams in by bird and dish.
Thus did "This Week With David Brinkley" devote yet another show to the Philippines yesterday, a look at the turbulent aftermath of the recent elections. They couldn't get cameras into the Defense Ministry, now controlled by opposition rebels, Brinkley apologetically told viewers, so Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, who'd seized the ministry on Saturday, talked to Brinkley and fellow inquisitors by telephone. All three Sunday morning network shows devoted themselves to the Philippines and Marcos himself appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who had traveled there as an official election observer, made the rounds; he was on every network. He's been seen during the coverage almost as much as Marcos, who gambled that making himself wildly accessible to American TV would do wonders for his image, but who always came off looking guilty. It was a public relations battle. He lost. So it goes in Video Village.
Blas Ople, an envoy from the Philippines, was interviewed in Washington during the Brinkley show yesterday and was asked if he had made progress in securing support for Marcos from within the Reagan administration. He said he'd only just arrived. First things first. First you go to the Brinkley show, then you go to the White House and Capitol Hill.
The story has come almost full circle on "Brinkley," since it was there that ABC News commentator George Will actually baited Marcos into having elections in the first place.
Will grilled Marcos via satellite last November; it was one of those put-up-or-shut-up challenges. Marcos put up, and certainly did not shut up. What followed was perhaps the first foreign election in history to be called up by an American television network. Such power they have!
William Randolph Hearst, often blamed for starting the Spanish-American War with his newspapers, would surely be bemused by the role American media have played in the Philippines this year. It's not as if the networks barged in; Marcos and his opposition have resolutely been a-wooing. The election itself seemed secondary to the image war they have been fighting on American TV.
Marcos has been as convenient as he has been accessible. He makes a perfect new bad guy for a long-running network news story. Locked out temporarily from covering violence in South Africa, the networks needed a new trouble spot, a new Moldavia, and it came with a new villain. Viewers probably resented Marcos as much for his omnipresence on TV as for his alleged abuses of power. The more he asserted his innocence, the guiltier he looked.
Marcos even became a character in comedy routines, ridiculed and lampooned not only in Johnny Carson's monologues but also in satirical gibes on "Saturday Night Live." Marcos bridged the comedy generation gap. Maybe the administration began to abandon Marcos and rethink its allegiances when it heard not only the disapproving reports on network newscasts, but also the jeering laughter on "The Tonight Show."
In his interviews -- and he's been on everything but "PM Magazine" -- Marcos has generally seemed cavalier and unrepentant, playing the dissolute despot in what became a terribly tidy TV scenario. Marcos let himself appear to be the 1986 ayatollah.
To watch the continuing coverage of the Philippines on TV has been to observe an Olympic-scale edition of the great media game Who's Using Whom? Such is life in a world that turns increasingly by the rules and rhythms of the almighty tube -- Realpolitik ala "Fantasy Island."
Once the election wheels were set in motion, the campaign was played out on American TV as if Americans were going to be able to vote (perhaps via a 900 number phone-in poll?). Marcos and his opponent, Corazon Aquino, were roughly as available to the media as Democratic presidential hopefuls newly arrived in New Hampshire for a snowy primary.
Marcos looked bad, talked tough, conveyed corruption; Aquino maintained a relative dignity. U.S. policy began to turn. It didn't look good to be allied with this nasty little man on TV.
We certainly never got a huge bonanza of information on the fall of Somoza in Nicaragua, a country possibly of more importance to U.S. interests than the Philippines, but then Somoza never tried to turn himself into a TV personality. His war was fought the old-fashioned way -- in the field, with guns.
On Friday night, there was an unforeseen wrinkle in the ongoing Philippine saga. Network newscasters had to eat a plate of crow l'orange. It evolved that the death of an anti-Marcos newspaper publisher in California, which everyone had earlier in the week attributed to some sort of roving Marcos hit squad, was, said the police, not a politically motivated death at all. The murderer instead was alleged to be the man's own son, who had always, the networks reported, "hated" his father. Ah, well. Meanwhile, back in the Philippines . . .
Yesterday, there came from that country a picture to help justify all the bushels and bushels of words network anchors and correspondents have lavished on this story: images of Filipino citizens lying down in the path of oncoming tanks, expressing their defiance in a stunningly visual way, so much so that even the implacable Brinkley was impressed. For a moment, too, the balance of power appeared to shift, and the fate of the Philippines seemed more in the hands of the people there than in the hands of the American television networks.
Network coverage of the Philippines story hasn't really been a triumph of reporting. It isn't reporting to get news sources to come into a studio and make news on the air. It's the art of booking. Maybe every ongoing news event becomes a talk show eventually. The suspicion lingers that television covers most eagerly those stories that most tailor themselves to television, and that the Philippines came along just when the networks needed something new in the crisis-of-the-week line.
Perhaps in their newscasts the networks have investigated nuances of the situation in the Philippines, but what they stress are the simplistics and the graphic contrasts, the cartoonish bold strokes. Suddenly we are all terribly aware of the Philippines, but we don't fully know why.
A tone of moralistic smugness has run through some of the coverage, as if the networks were the new "Mission: Impossible" force, a liberating army in Burberry coats and lapel microphones to be cheered on arrival by oppressed citizenries everywhere.
We're all terribly Philippines-conscious now. But we're very likely not to be a month from now, when the fickle eye of the networks, having looked, moves on.