IN THIS SPACE yesterday we undertook to correct a typographical error in a previous editorial that had put us "off" by a mere 41,998,000,000 souls in computing a particular Social Security benefit. The astute reader may have noticed that we simultaneously carried a piece critical of the haste-makes-waste TV coverage of the March 30 nightmares outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. This piece, by the Post's Ombudsman, made a valid point -- and so did the wickedly merry satire by Chicago Tribune columnist Michael Kilian that we ran on Sunday, imagining what TV coverage of the War of 1812 might have been like. Yes, it is true that what TV viewers were shown was a rush of conflicting, partial and sometimes utterly inaccurate reports. But as the not-so-proud perpetrators of a forty-one-billion-nine-hundred-and-ninety eight-million slip this past Sunday ourselves and as journalists who have light years of leisure for reflection compared with what those pressured TV people were up against on the day of the shooting, it seems to us that a little elaboration is in order.
The difference between Monday afternoon on television and any ordinary six o'clock in the evening was, first, that news was happening -- it wasn't just being recounted, synopsized and pictured as if it were happening. A lot of people professed to miss the ressuring presence of Mr. Cronkite, but the truth is that his nightly sign-off ("and that's the way it is") was probably never more fitting than as a description of the scene conveyed by the reporters on TV. Reality -- the raw product, as distinct from the recollected news report -- is always messy and never messier than when the unexpected government-, life-and order-threatening act of violence occurs. Let us remember in complaining about the disorder of the television reporting that its primary sources were in disarray: was it not Secretary Haig's own impatience with the quality of White House announcements and responses to questions that led him to take to the microphone himself?
There were extraordinary pressures on the people who were called upon abruptly that afternoon to keep the rest of us informed about the only thing that then concerned the nation as a whole, the only thing we wanted to be informed about and informed about now. There were the normal pressures of competition between the three networks, the new pressures that clearly come from the new (and useful) tendency of people to view television coverage and involvement in public events critically and with much more sophistication than they used to and the plain pressure to get the story straight under unimaginably difficult circumstances. There were no proofreaders lallygagging about there, no directors saying "Cut -- let's take it from the top, and this time try to . . . " etc. It is worth noting, in this connection, that the man who would have been the best and most reliable source and the one with the best and broadest government access, Jim Brady, had himself been shot down.
Did TV fail to reassure? Well, it wasn't a very ressuring situation. It did provide as much information as it could get as fast as it could, and this in itself provided a form of reassurance, even if the news was bad -- knowing beats not knowing and only fearing in this regard. Did TV go too fast with some reports? Probably. But our recollection is that is put warning words that these were only reports onto the messages. Did its reporters and anchormen sometimes seem highly emotional and nervous and breathless? Of course they did. And so what? We hardly expected them to say "and now for a word on the weather" or "next, sports."
Like you, we supposed, we found some of the media performance insensitive, irrelevant and gross. We also found Mr. Kilian's wounderful satire of it immensely funny and sharp. And we have our own set of complaints. But it does seem worth saying that the context in which this whole discussion of the TV role goes forward, at least in our opinion, should be one that appreciates and -- yes -- admires the work those much pressured and put-upon people performed under chaotic conditions.