When my father was a rewriteman on a New York City newspaper back in the 1920s (everyone, regardless of sex, was a newspaperman in those days) the city editor would sidle by just before deadline and ask him to "freshen up" a story for the final edition. Invariably, the story would be about some violent act that day. The "Freshening up" of its factual presentation would enable a banner headline to be written to catch extra street sales. The new in the news -- or seemingly the new, no matter how warmed over from items already reported -- was what sold. The same practice was in vogue when I came to Washington many years later.
These memories came to mind the other day when a TV network news producer defended the constant showing of chanting Iranian Demonstrators waving those familiar fists into the eye of the American cameras. He was responding to my questions about when an event stopped being new, therefore news, and became merely staged propaganda, cynical theater designed to reach the widest unfiltered audience through the tube.
His point was, as he said, that those scenes "were not yet a cliche." He pointed to the enormous audience being attracted to the news broadcast from Iran morning after morning, evening after evening, on the American networks.
It was a version of the old street-sales syndrome, another way to capture an audience.
Aside from those reservations (of which more later), the performance of American television day after day during the long Iranian ordeal has been one of electronic journalism's finest moments.
In crises past, the words of a president or the collective acts of the government rallied the nation. The president has been praised, deservedly, for his handling of the Iranian situation. But this time, more than any other factor, television has been the vehicle through which the nation has united.
Television has presented, with courage and enterprise, the true face of the Iranian revolution for all the country to see and judge -- the sneering and contemptuous manner of the foreign minister, the demogoguery and hatred of the ayatollah, the misstatements and outright lies of a succession of Iranian officials, the cynicism and duplicity ofvarious religious leaders, the spuriousness and manipulation of the so-called "students."
It's ironic, therefore, to find the networks embroiled once again in a controversy over their handling of a major news event.
The dispute that erupted last week over the televised interview of Cpl. William Gallegos, one of the American hostates, was unfortunate and largely unfair. NBC, the network that eventually broadcast the interview, has been pilloried by politicans, its own competitors, and numerous press critics. The background is complicated, but essential.
All the networks were approached by the Iranians with a proposal to allow one of the hostages to be interviewed. But the filming, and most critically the questioning, would be under complete control of the Iranians. In effect, the captors would be interrogating the captive. The idea was reminiscent of the notorious fake "confessions" filmed and forced on American POWs, under threat of death, during the Vietnam and Korean wars. The networks rejected the idea.
What NBC agreed to was an interview with a hostage, picked, of course, by the Iranians, and a broadcast in prime time. The Iranians would not be told what questions would be asked, nor what specific hour the interview would be broadcast. NBC also agreed to broadcast an Iranian statement read by someone called "Mary." But it retained full control of the edition; in other words, NBC decided what was the news, not the Iranians. It could scrap the entire effort if either the statement or the interview were, in its judgement, too contrived.
The resulting interview was solid, informative, revealing. The NBC questioners and most especially the corporal handled themselves with distinction. "Mary's" remarks were seen for what they were -- heavy-handed propaganda, only further infuriating Americans who watched.
The ultimate irony has been the success of the Iranians in using American TV to convey all their messages and yet the complete failure of the messages themselves. Instead of dividing or intimidating the nation, the scenes of shouting crowds burning American flags and of government spokesmen denouncing the U.S. president have unified the public as rarely before. In its latest survey, the Roper polling organization says:
"'Mary,' the Iranian representative who gave a 'commerical' before Marine Cpl Gallegos was interviewed by NBC over television Monday night, called on the American people to let their government know how they feel. It seems clear from our latest results that any attempt to drive a wedge between the American people and their government over the Iranian situation will not work."
The connection between the TV networks and terrorism creates other concerns. Walter Cronkite correctly worries that "terrorists might hold hostages against a demand of air time" (or of newspaper front pages). And troubling questions exist about the constant use of those daily staged crowd scenes.
Happily, the ayatollah happens to be woefully uninformed about American attitudes and how to shape American opinion. That doesn't mean we can stop worrying about the dangers of an effective demagogue in this age of instant worldwide TV communications and organized terrorism.