Was it just coincidence -- or a bow to the imperatives of this media age -- that on the same day President Reagan welcomed home the Americans who had been taken hostage on TWA Flight 847, the date was set for his first face-to-face meeting with the leader of the Soviet Union?
The link between the two events may not seem obvious, but there is one: both will surely be on the highlight reel of the biggest picture stories of 1985. In the era of "up-close-and- personal" camera journalism, the Beirut hostage story and the Geneva summit are sure winners.
The television networks took the TWA 847 story and ran with it. Now they are feeling the backlash of criticism from the print press and some politicians for the "excesses" they permitted or encouraged.
NBC's John Chancellor, one of the sanest and most honorable people in that business, lashed back in rare anger at the suggestion by Washington Post television critic Tom Shales that "the hostage crisis had to be wrapped up this (past) weekend simply because the viewing public was getting sick of it."
Chancellor was justifiably enraged at the implication that the networks were scripting and programming the hostage drama as if it were a mini- series designed to boost ratings. Yet there is no question that television moved in on the story with a competitive ferocity that knew no bounds -- an intensity that could not have been sustained had the ordeal lasted much longer. At some point, many of us watching felt television crossed the line between covering the story and hyping it. The incessant interviews made no distinction between the words and sentiments of captives and captors, allies and enemies, and implicitly collapsed all ques- tions to the imperative of a quick release.
It is tempting to speculate that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was impelled to accept Reagan's invitation to a summit meeting after seeing the way in which Shiite and Syrian critics of the United States were able to use the American television networks to make their propaganda points.
But there is no evidence that was the case, and, in any event, Gorbachev has already demonstrated such a mastery of electronic public relations that he does not have to take his cues from the likes of Nabih Berri or Hafez Assad. His visit to Great Britain last year, before he formally assumed power in the Kremlin, was a tour de force that left even Margaret Thatcher, no mean scene- stealer herself, agog.
There's a warning signal here for Ronald Reagan. One of the sources of his strength these last 41/2 years has been his domination of television, not just on the national scene but on the international scale as well. That mastery is now being challenged by Third World tough guys and by the self-confident master of Communist Russia.
But there is something larger at stake than Reagan's standing. It involves our ability as a nation to think clearly about our position in the world.
What television does superbly is to focus in tightly on a story. It shows us the scene and the players in a way that truly does transform a generalized problem such as terrorism into a personal drama of overwhelming impact. But the very tightness of its focus -- its need for those "up-close-and- personal" pictures -- makes it exceedingly difficult for television to keep things in perspective.
If you doubt that, ask yourself what happened during the 18 days of the TWA 847 story to the issue of communist subversion in the Western Hemisphere -- the concern that had caused the Reagan administration so recently to order an embargo of Nicaragua and to lobby furiously in Congress for a revival of aid to the anti- Sandinista rebels. Thatissue just disappeared.
The bombing of an Air India plane, which took eight times as many lives as were at risk in Beirut, was not nearly as big a television story -- because after the first two days there were no more pictures. Famine in Africa, fighting in Afghanistan, even the impasse on the federal budget suffered similar fates.
When Reagan and Gorbachev meet in Geneva, chances are they will be accompanied by the network anchormen and a horde of cameras. Every smile or frown from the summiteers will be magnified by endless repetition on the TV screens into a metaphor for U.S.- Soviet relations.
But in reality, we cannot reduce international relations to the close-up pictures on which television thrives. The problems are more complex than footage of a pistol-wielding hijacker or a freed hostage's farewell embrace of his jailer can communicate. We cannot think straight about foreign policy if our emotions are being jerked up and down by the zoom lenses focusing on a family's grief at an Arlington grave or the grin of a consummate Kremlin operative.
What the critics of television are saying is not that the networks did their job badly but that they did it all too well. Our senses were overwhelmed, and our minds were drowned in the coverage. The Reagan-Gorbachev summit threatens a similar surfeit, unless there are some serious second thoughts by the people who control these magnificent and maddening communications mechanisms.