Most of TV news is instant theater, a sort of foil-wrapped video TV dinner that reaches a quick boil and then evaporates. The purpose is to stimulate emotions, not minds. The emphasis is on what viewers see, not what they learn or absorb.
And "20/20," ABC's hothouse video magazine that has long labored in the shadow of "60 Minutes" on CBS, takes a back seat to none when it comes to drum rolls and vamping for the camera. That's what it does in its lead segment-- on the extraordinary McMartin Preschool molestation case--at 10 p.m. Thursday on Channels 3 and 10, but not on KABC-TV Channel 7, which is preempting the segment. The 20-minute segment seems to support the case against school director Virginia McMartin and six teachers facing more than 200 molestation charges involving 42 children.
Yet six parents of children allegedly abused at the school were highly critical of the segment when they previewed it with me at The Times. Although they did not feel the segment exploits any of the alleged victims, they faulted its incompleteness and the use of dramatic devices to make points.
And one parent went further, charging that most media coverage of the case was "one-note, always concentrating on the lurid and the dramatic."
The "20/20" segment certainly does that. Typically, it creates good TV from colorful--but questionable--journalism.
"Up front tonight," announces host Hugh Downs, "new insight into one of the most shocking subjects of this decade . . . the alleged widespread sexual abuse of children."
In truth, the segment offers no "new insight" at all.
What it does offer, for the first time on national TV, are taped interviews of three children claiming to have been sexually abused at the now-closed Manhattan Beach preschool. These children (who are unrelated to the six parents who previewed the segment at The Times) detail alleged widespread molestations and physical and mental torture, a revolting existance for children at the school.
The identities of the former McMartin students quizzed by "20/20" correspondent Tom Jarriel--none of whom are scheduled to directly participate in the McMartin trial expected to start in the fall--are not revealed. Their faces are unseen and their voices distorted electronically.
It was specifically the children's presence in Thursday's "20/20" that prompted KABC-TV, which is the ABC-owned station in Los Angeles, to preempt the program. It is KABC's policy not to air interviews with allegedly molested children who live here.
A number of McMartin parents had opposed "20/20" interviewing the three children on TV, fearing that could weaken the parents' campaign against the alleged victims testifying in open court.
Municipal Court Judge Aviva K. Bobb has ruled that the children must testify in open court, but parents are pushing a California Senate bill that would allow children in molestation cases to testify via closed-circuit TV.
Although critical of the rest of the segment, the six parents (three men and three women) who screened the segment, and agreed to discuss it if their names weren't used, felt that "20/20" did not exploit the three children and took adequate precautions to protect their identities.
"What bothers me about the piece," said one parent, "is that it shows the natural limitations of the medium itself. In 20 minutes, there is no way you can possibly do a fair story."
Twenty minutes, though, is plenty of time for high drama.
The McMartin case took years to surface. A nagging question, which "20/20" asks again, is why children would remain quiet so long about being mistreated. "20/20" offers a possible answer, the oft-made charge by McMartin parents and the prosecution that the children were "brainwashed into silence" by their teachers.
Then "20/20" applies the clincher by bringing in its own expert. He is Col. James Rowe, a former Vietnam POW whom correspondent Jarriel describes as "one of the Army's leading authorities on brainwashing."
McMartin. Vietnam. Very dramatic.
The program slickly juxtaposes charges made by the children with observations by Rowe about their alleged brainwashing, observations that Jarriel says Rowe made from watching the taped "20/20" interviews of the three children.
You may question how Rowe is able to form definitive opinions based on what he briefly saw on the screen. But "20/20" isn't questioning. It's on a roll.
He compares the alleged McMartin brainwashing to the Vietnamese Communist brainwashing tactic of stripping American POWs of their family, religious and national identities. "And what I saw here," says Rowe, "was that these children were being conditioned to reject the very (same) sources of strength and reinforcement and guidance that were available to them outside of this (the school) environment."
"20/20" also interviews defendant Betty Raidor, the 64-year-old McMartin senior teacher, and her lawyer, Walter Urban, who deny the brainwashing charges.
"And yet, after we showed '20/20's' interviews with the children to Col. Rowe, he had little doubt, based on his experience and their stories, that they had been brainwashed by their teachers," Jarriel says.
"Behavioral modification was definitely there," Rowe says. "They altered those children from what they were when they came in and that is, in effect, brainwashing."
The six McMartin parents felt that Rowe's prominence on the program--when "20/20" could have utilized brainwashing experts intimately familiar with the case--is another dramatic device, even though Rowe does support their own charges about brainwashing.
"They did brainwash them, if you want to use that terminology," one parent said. "But I had a little bit of a problem with him trying to bend this situation to fit a combat situation."
Several parents felt that Rowe's mere physical appearance is another dramatic device. He's wearing combat fatigues.
The parents also faulted "20/20" for gratuitously showing a group photograph of McMartin students with their faces blurred over, fearing the children could still be identified. "I hated it," one parent said. "I saw my daughter in that."
And the parents criticized "20/20" for being simplistic in offering what they described as "the five easy steps to detect child abuse."
"It's not that simple," said one parent, adding that it would be more beneficial to advise parents on how to brief their children about possible dangers before the offenses can occur.
The parents fear that questionable reporting--even when favorable to them--damages their credibility. So they were mostly unenthusiastic about the "20/20" segment, which will be followed by a brief "tag" on child molestations that was unavailable for preview. However, they agreed that better this "20/20" segment on the McMartin case than none at all. And they agreed that the case offers reporters a difficult new challenge.
"The media just doesn't know how to find a handle on this," a parent said. "We're pioneers."