In the race for on-the-air scoops, which ABC-TV News seems to have won to date, the interview Friday morning between anchorman Dan Rather of "CBS Evening News" and TWA Flight 847's hostage media star, Allyn Conwell, was distinctive.
In fact, that edited discussion was considered so unusual in the breathless stream of television hostage interviews, "CBS Morning News" anchorman Robert Schieffer asked his colleague Rather to explain the event on the air.
"Why didn't you go on live with this conversation?" Schieffer asked.
"We didn't want to go on the air with this conversation live," Rather replied. "We believe, that is CBS believes, that there is some danger in putting the hostages on with an interview like this live," Rather said. "We just think we have to keep control of the air."
"We're not turning the network over to the terrorists," Schieffer interjected.
"Yes, and there is that danger if you go live with it," Rather added.
In the parry and thrust among the networks that this hostage crisis has become for the television industry, this was seen by many as an attack on Rather's competitors, especially ABC, even though Rather and others at CBS denied it.
But it also touched on the key question for television journalists who are already facing a drumbeat of criticism for being "used" by the terrorists to skew the event their way.
Television commentators have repeatedly made this point themselves, attempting to balance the increasing criticism from without by their critiques from within. But with four large networks scrambling for exclusives and higher ratings, the call for restraint is one that seems mostly to be recognized as important, then dismissed as impossible.
For example, Cable News Network, which features nonstop news and thus is faced with the largest amount of air time to fill, yesterday poured its tape of the hostages at a Beirut school onto the air at 10:07 a.m. It was clearly raw and unedited. One shot showed a countdown -- five, four, three, etc. Cameras swerved, giving a dizzying loss of focus.
CNN correspondent Jim Clancy, interviewing one of the hostages, kept pressing his subject on why he had been so ignorant of the Amal Shiite's concerns before the hijacking in such a way that some viewers felt that he seemed to be hectoring his subject rather than questioning him.
But within minutes, CNN aired a critique of the Clancy interview by hostage consultant Michael Vlahos, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"I was just saying how dangerous it is to show unedited film like that. I know ABC, CBS, they have all done it," Vlahos said later. "But it puts the hostage under great pressure. If they said something wrong, they could be in great danger, but essentially the media, as in Iran, has been falling into the role of basically servicing the purposes of the hostages. In their quest for good imagery, the poor hostages are unintentionally being forced to be mouthpieces of the terrorists."
If competition for instant scoops is the driving force for those in the news business, the television networks are also looking for credit from other media outlets -- other networks as well as in the nation's newspapers.
Each day of this long fortnight, television spokesmen have churned out transcripts at the request of the major newspapers, providing them with a vital source of news in return for attribution.
The battle for credit seemed most intense last week when ABC's Charles Glass in Beirut did an interview with hostages at a seaside restaurant for Thursday's news programs.
The problem for ABC arose, however, when one branch of the Amal militia suggested that working conditions would be "improved" if ABC "shared" the tape with their competing networks, according to one ABC executive. ABC did so, asserting that this was a "share," not a "pool," an important distinction for the television trade. A share means that the networks would give ABC the credit; a "pool" means that one reporter does the work and shares it with the rest of the pack, with no attribution necessary.
NBC, considering the tape to be "pooled," made no mention to its viewers that the seaside interview was being done by a correspondent from a competing network. Thursday night, Rather identified the footage as a "pool" interview done by Glass of ABC. But the loss of credit infuriated ABC's news team.
"It was not something we were giving out as just handout material," said Robert J. Murphy, vice president of ABC News. "We expected credit and we didn't get it."
By Friday, ABC officials were If competition for instant scoops is the driving force for the news business, the television networks are also looking for credit from other media outlets. saying that under the same circumstances they may have been more reluctant to give over their tapes of interviews, even though the Amal press office in Beirut promised other networks Thursday that they can get access to any and all interviews allowed by the captors. "These guys are so sophisticated about the way they are getting through to the American viewer," said Walter Mears, vice president and executive editor of the Associated Press. "When Amal understands the pool system, that blows my mind. These guys are street fighters and they're making ground rules for the media."
Mears said that as in many political events in this country, wire services and newspapers are writing major chunks of their stories from the television set. The front page of Friday's Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, attributed its major news to Israeli television, to a CBS News interview with Nabih Berri in Beirut and to ABC News for an interview with one of the hostages.
"It's a television event," said James McCartney, a Knight-Ridder correspondent who wrote one of the Inquirer stories. "Look at Mr. Berri. Is he talking to The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer? No, he's calling in the networks."
If White House officials are unhappy that hostages are making emotional appeals for their release during daily newsbreaks, some correspondents feel they may share the blame for the fact that the hostages and Berri were dominating the television news.
Talking about what she calls the White House news "grayout," CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl said, "I think it has been hurting them. We were coming through on the news Thursday with this imminent breakthrough and it just seemed to me the expectations were pumped up and up.
"I think the White House made a mistake in not answering one of our many phone calls and just cautioning us, saying something like 'I wouldn't build up expectations as much as you are.' They have not been doing any of that," Stahl said.
The grayout, so named because the blackout was diluted by comments on the situation from President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and an unnamed high White House official in Friday's Washington Post, really meant that little news was being dispensed at the daily briefings. White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who Tuesday had issued "options" on possible U.S. military actions to reporters who dutifully went out to the White House lawn to report them, fell silent by Wednesday.
Thus, the pictures needed for television came from Beirut, where Berri and his men were more accommodating