"Welcome to history in the making," said Dan Rather of CBS News.
Oh, that again!
But this was the real McCoy. This was the real Mikhail. The Gorbachevs were about to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, live on all three networks.
"We can see his plane off to my right," said CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. He could see it but viewers couldn't, unless they were watching one of the other networks at that moment. They had shots of the plane, not just someone saying he could see it.
All three network anchors showed up for the coverage. They needn't have. In the old days of television, an event like the arrival would have been covered by the reporter at the scene, who would fill waits and spaces with color commentary and background information. No more. Now the anchors have to hog their way into the act, blabbing and blabbing from their booths while the correspondents on the scene cool heels.
Peace, it's noisy.
CBS went way overboard, as it awaited the plane's arrival, with produced reports on, among other things, the Russians' expense accounts. Correspondent Lesley Stahl found it just a scandal that Soviet advance teams had cleaned out the mini-bars in their suites at the Madison Hotel, taking those little liquor bottles with them. Sacre bleu! She failed to report on how much soap and how many towels might have been lifted.
"How could this happen," asked an agonized Rather, "that we would wind up paying for this?" It was deemed worthy of note that the United States foots the bills for the visitors -- and grudgingly conceded that the Soviets will do the same for the next summit, expected in the spring.
An interesting question: Is a hefty hotel bill too much to pay for attempting to prolong the existence of the planet Earth? Tom Brokaw had the price of peace on his mind as he closed "NBC Nightly News" last night, too. He carried on about a London press report that Gorbachev had spent $8,000 on new suits for his summit appearance, then reiterated gossip about Nancy Reagan's attitude toward Raisa Gorbachev.
Rather noted during the special report that Ronald Reagan had appeared at "a carefully staged meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff" earlier in the day. Another hot scoop. We all know it has been a carefully staged presidency from Day One. It's the age of television, man. Presidencies are all going to be carefully staged or they're going to go down the tube.
Breaking his own inexplicably grim mood, Rather suddenly said, "Hey, one doesn't want to be too solemn about this. The Gorbachevs have arrived. Welcome!"
They couldn't hear him.
CBS Newsniks are still mad at the Russians. They're miffed that the Soviets turned down the CBS request for an interview with Gorbachev and delivered him instead unto NBC -- even after CBS President Laurence Tisch himself visited Moscow to help with negotiations. There have been accusations and counteraccusations between the two networks about what the turndown represents.
ABC News never actually got turned down on its interview request. But it didn't get a Gorba-chat, either.
To add insult to insult, the Russians have taken CBS up on its earlier offer to share the network's Washington bureau with them. Soviet journalists here to cover the Gorbachev visit for the folks back home are hanging out in the already cramped CBS M Street digs.
So while Reagan may have mellowed toward the Russians, CBS has not. Perhaps a whole series of separate summits will have to be held to iron this out.
On ABC for the Gorbachev arrival, Peter Jennings did not suffer from the overproduction that swamped Rather's raiders. At one point, though, Jennings took his own staff to task for the way it identified Vitaly Zhurkin, deputy director of a Moscow think tank, and one of ABC's guest experts. The superimposed ID said "Soviet Journalist." Jennings grumped, "He is not a journalist" and the term was dropped the next time the name appeared.
ABC News was the only network, a spokesman said, to air, live, the Gorbachevs' arrival in England much earlier in the day.
On NBC, Brokaw was abetted, not very productively, by Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Soviet expert Dimitri Simes, who told Brokaw he would bet his own house that Gorbachev would not make major human rights concessions during the summit talks. "Let's face it," said Simes, offering the blinding insight of the week, "he is a communist."
As the Gorbachevs alighted yesterday, and as the commentators commentated, wags were hard at work trying to decide who each of the Gorbachevs resembled. Raisa looks like Eydie Gorme', the singer. And Mikhail, one sage observed, looks just like Rod Steiger as he appeared in "On the Waterfront." Even dresses the same.
All the networks are doing lots of reports about all the media representatives who are here to cover the summit, and there have been innumerable shots of the gigantic press room set up at a local hotel. Most of this stuff registers a flat zero on the content scale. But on its newscast Sunday night, Channel 9 (WUSA) had a nice shot of a Soviet cameraman filming an American cameraman who was filming the Soviets.
Peace, it's messy.
Earlier Sunday night, Soviet spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov played good sport as best he could by sitting still for a call-in show on C-Span, the praiseworthy public affairs cable channel.
"Yes, hello! Hello, Gennadi!" said a caller from Washington. "Nice to see you!" Some callers were hostile. "Human rights" was mentioned. One man wanted Gerasimov to comment on what the caller termed a "conspiracy" by the U.S. cable industry against owners of backyard satellite dishes. Host Bob Clark deemed this question "too esoteric."
Gerasimov, brandishing a slight, reluctant smile, seemed amused. "I like this, that you just call in from different places," he said.
When Clark couldn't ascertain the origin of one call, Gerasimov joshed, "I think it's Moscow, U.S.S.R." Asked if the INF treaty to be signed by Reagan and Gorbachev were ready at that moment, Gerasimov shrugged, "I guess it is."
On Sunday afternoon, TV offered images not at all cheery or innocuous. Cable News Network's man in Moscow, Peter Arnett, was seen being roughed up and arrested by Soviet police while attempting to cover a street demonstration by refuseniks.
A viewer could not be blamed for wanting to find the convivial Gerasimov more indicative of current U.S.-Soviet relations than the jostling of an American journalist. But the contrast pointed up the mixed feelings required during this Summit Week.
Turning on the television set and finding a Russian there is still quite a novelty. But the summit climaxes a year in which Americans have been exposed to more Soviet faces on TV than ever before: Soviet TV programming shown full-length on the Discovery Channel and in excerpts on "ABC News Nightline"; the exhaustive CBS News report "Seven Days in May" taped throughout the Soviet Union; trailblazing "Citizens' Summits" hosted by Phil Donahue; and, most recently, Brokaw's interview with Gorbachev.
Russians. The airwaves are thick with 'em. We are getting to know them -- if not getting to know all about them -- through the very box that earlier this year dispensed the dank paranoid fantasy "Amerika" on ABC.
On a summit's eve edition of ABC's "Jennings-Koppel Report," the history of the Soviet image in the United States was traced, back to hysterical anti-Soviet diatribes like "Red Nightmare." When "Amerika" came up, Ted Koppel said, "The budgets are bigger," but according to such films, "the Soviets are still out to get us."
Now the viewing nation has a chance at new, informal views of the Soviets. And they of us. It was reported on "Jennings-Koppel" that what really intrigued the Russians who saw the most recent of ABC's "Capital to Capital" specials were the commercials that interrupted it. Correspondent Eileen O'Connor was asked, "Where is this 'General Hospital'?" by a Soviet viewer who saw a promo for the popular ABC soap.
It could be argued that for the Soviets and the Americans to judge each other by their respective television programming may do more harm to world peace than good.
When network coverage departs from the official events, meanwhile, it usually improves. Talk of building bridges between peoples, especially Soviets and Americans, may elicit groans from cynics, but it can make for compelling and encouraging TV. Broadcasts like "Capital to Capital" have to contribute to a lessening of distrust and ignorance on both sides.
In that spirit, the brilliant personal journalist Jon Alpert is doing intimate summit-related reports this week for NBC's league-leading "Today" show. Yesterday's included a visit to an American classroom where a little boy had drawn a picture of Reagan shaking Gorbachev's hand. "If it would stop the nuclear war," the little boy said, "it would be worth it."
Peace, it's sweet.
Later in Alpert's report, he traveled with a Nashville woman on a privately sponsored pilgrimage to Tashkent in the Soviet Union. Here she was greeted like a long-lost sister, served a huge meal and lavishly hugged and kissed as she made her departure. As the car pulled away, waving men and women receding into the distance, the Nashville woman told Alpert, "When you meet people like this, you see that this is what the human spirit is all about."
Experts caution, sometimes at oppressive length, about working up too much hope for the summit talks and the treaty Reagan and Gorbachev will sign. But presented with these warming, appealing images on television, one wonders if too much hope can be such a dangerous thing.