Television journalism now comes divided in two parts: coverage of the story and coverage of the coverage. From congressional hearing rooms to the chambers of assorted think tanks, post-mortems on TV and The Hostage Crisis are proliferating even as public interest subsides.
Under the rules, I cannot divulge even the sponsor of a day-long seminar here. But I can give you my sense of the way the discussion went -- back and forth in a spirited, inconclusive way. For reasons having nothing to do with the particpants (media, government and academic figures), we were fighting the last war, which history tells us is a poor guide to the next.
The critics thought TV's coverage was excessive, erratic, obstructive. But this was a private exchange. With no premium on applause, nobody went quite so far as the State Department's legal adviser, Abraham Sofaer, did, in London recently. Sofaer saw a "media extravaganza that gave irresponsibility and tastelessness a new meaning."
Instead, the central question -- whose side are you on? -- was soberly addressed. There was something to be said for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's notion of starving future terrorists of the "oxygen of publicity on which they depend." But how, as a practical matter? By "self-discipline," it was argued, which is to say, by tacit conspiracies in restraint of competition among naturally fierce competitors.
At about this point, a reasonable judge would have accepted a defense motion to dismiss the case, without prejudice to the popular proposition that the wicked money-grubbers in the news business care about nothing more than their own careers, network ratings and bottom line. In fact, the television practitioners at the New York meeting had made a persuasive case that they cared about other things as well -- the safety of innocent lives, the security concern of the U.S. government, the "duress" of the hostages and the anguish of their next-of- kin.
Examples were offered of sensitive information withheld at government request. As a general rule, the hostage holders, the hooded hijackers and the leaders of the Amal movement, including Nabih Berri, were never put on the air "live." This gave the networks a chance to control what went on the air.
Even ABC's controversial interview with hostages at a seaside caf,e had a safety net: the understanding was that a wink from a hostage, signaling an unwelcome turn in the questioning, was all that would be needed for the cameramen to claim that their equipment had broken down. At least two interviews produced valuable information. The plane's captain revealed for the first time that the hostages were no longer aboard; the first interview with hostage representatives was the first evidence that all of them were accounted for.
None of this goes to the question of uniform, prearranged rules. It does not address a sweeping proposition advanced publicly at a subsequent congressional hearing by former CBS news president Fred Friendly, now professor emeritus at Columbia University. He wants every news organization to have a "code of ethics." He would end competition and banish the notion of being first with the news; he would make "exclusive" a "dirty word."
But Friendly gave his own game away: "I have decided in my 70th year that I am a citizen first and a journalist second." That nicely begs the hard question of whether it is possible to be both at the same time. It is also at odds with the clear recollection of his CBS employees that he used to have three TV sets turned on in his office and that "exclusive," not to mention "ratings," were quite acceptable words.
The point is that it is hard to make rules about the right amount of air time for terrorists, hijackers or hostages. To argue that terrorists should not be allowed to "shoot their way onto our air" is to suggest that what they want to do is talk. In fact, kidnappings and car bombings tend to speak for themselves and would be hard to keep off the air. In any case, the wreckage of the Marine compound in Lebanon or a shot of a hijacker's hand over the mouth of TWA Flight 847's captain with a gun at his head is hardly calculated to win American hearts and minds.
The argument made by critics at the seminar here was that the appearance of hostages and their relatives subjects the president to unusual pressure, the more so when they are "under duress." The implication is that the president and American public can't figure that out. More to the point, if that's the problem, you have only to recall the number of times Ronald Reagan went well out of his way, while stumping the country on behalf of tax reform, to subject himself to interviews with hostage families.
There may be therapy in this sort of painstaking reprise. But that does not argue for a body of "rules" and "standards" deriving from one or another past experience. The particular circumstances of the last crisis have a habit of not repeating themselves.