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TERRORISM AS THEATER: TV COVERS A HIJACKING

Lights, cameras, terror.

“I think you have to view terrorism as a theatrical event,” Robert Kupperman said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

Kupperman, billed as an expert on terrorism, was referring to Friday’s hijacking of a TWA jetliner by Shia Muslims, an act that has captured the attention of the news media. The terrorists released some of the passengers and held the rest hostage, demanding the release of 700 to 800 Lebanese Shia Muslims held in Israel.

Or else!

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“This is the world stage,” Kupperman told Fred Graham, who was substituting for the CBS program’s regular host, Lesley Stahl. “My God, every single network. . . .,” Kupperman added, his voice trailing off. “They (the terrorists) are interested in their coverage.”

“Of course, you and I are here,” Graham said. “Are we part of the problem?”

“Of course we are,” Kupperman replied.

He had a point, although there was certainly no way that the media could turn their backs on this hijack tragedy or treat it routinely. In the early going Saturday and Sunday, moreover, the 24-hour Cable News Network--by its continuous presence--and ABC News, with Peter Jennings anchoring masterfully, really distinguished themselves.

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At its core, though, the kidnaping of the crew and passengers aboard Flight 847 was a macabre media event, one in which ambiguous forces from across the seas were again writing the headlines and pushing the levers that activate international press machinery.

Just as they were activated less than six years ago.

This time militants were not shaking their fists for the benefit of cameras. Yet early comparisons with the 444-day Iranian hostage ordeal of 1979-81 were inevitable, abetted by the tension-raising language that the networks were sometimes using to characterize the Flight 847 story.

By Monday morning, the day count (“Day Four”) had become affixed in the CBS News title for this odyssey, much as Walter Cronkite years earlier had contributed to a crescendo of emotion by nightly counting the days of the Iranian hostage seizure. And there was the Monday morning labeling of this latest incident as a hostage “crisis” by Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s “Today” show and by Bob Schieffer on “The CBS Morning News.”

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That seemed a sure way to create a crisis atmosphere.

You had the feeling also that the White House was using TV to send messages to the hijackers. After emerging from a government briefing, White House correspondents for ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN almost simultaneously reported being told that Israel probably would release the Shia Muslims in question if the jetliner hostages--by now reported off the plane and secreted in Beirut--were released first.

The correspondents also reported that the White House was laying responsibility for a peaceful resolution of the incident on the shoulders of Shia Muslim militia chief Nabih Berri.

The hostage story was nearly the entire focus of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The CBS Morning News” (in a Schieffer/Terry Smith-anchored departure from its usual spongy format).

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But NBC’s “Today” inexplicably wedged interviews of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Brooke Shields (Gene Shalit asked her the “crisis” question about her “virginity”) into its otherwise credible two hours.

Well, mostly credible.

The perils of live TV befell Jane Pauley when she began interviewing Abuhassan Sawan, a Shia Muslim in Detroit, and he turned the interview into an anti-Israel monologue and statement about the hostage seizure that he contended “Mr. Berri encharged me to say.”

Viewers were not really told who this man was, whom he represented or who designated him a spokesman. Yet there he was on national TV, allowed to ramble on and on almost at will, catching Pauley off guard.

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“Again, thank you, Mr. Sawan,” she said, her face frozen in bafflement.

“Yes, thank you,” he said. “Nice to talk to you.”

What a sad, gripping, dramatic event this has been, with its terror, intensity and emotion--if not its root causes--captured so vividly by TV. Here was the voice of the pilot, Capt. John Testrake, in desperate communication with the Beirut airport, reducing a doomed man’s remaining moments to a few words:

“They’re about to shoot a passenger. . . . They are about to shoot a passenger. . . . They just shot a passenger.”

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There was no way to be fully and immediately informed about any of this without CNN, Ted Turner’s scruffy little all-news network that has grown up to become indispensable. Unlike the other networks, CNN’s entire business is news, so there was never a decision to make about when to interrupt regular programming for a hostage update.

The hostage story was CNN’s regular programming.

So CNN, for example, was the only network to carry live Sunday’s dramatic New York press conference in which Uli Derickson and three other flight attendants released by the terrorists gave detailed descriptions of the experience.

After the hostage story broke, ABC was the first network to get its correspondents inside Beirut--though twice having its tapes confiscated by nervous Shia militia at the airport--and CBS, the last (not airing its first in-house audio reports until Monday morning).

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Dan Rather did yeoman work anchoring CBS special programs and inserts, and former Middle East correspondent John Palmer initially sat in for NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who was reported vacationing out of the country.

But the hostage story was tailor-made for ABC’s Jennings, the network’s former Middle East correspondent who lived in Beirut for six years. He anchored so confidently and knowledgeably that he left everyone else in the dust.

In a Saturday morning sidelight, while competing networks were running kiddie shows, Jennings was on ABC speaking to Mike McCourt in Algiers. When McCourt complained of being interrupted by the international operator, Jennings immediately told her in fluent French: “Madam, we are speaking. Please wait!”

He was equally commanding in anchoring a superior Sunday night hostage special that easily was the best survey and review of the story to date, one that looked past the immediate peril toward some of the causes of Middle East turmoil.

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“This is deja vu for me in some respects,” Jennings said by phone Sunday night. “I know some of the players. I know the Beirut airport like the back of my hand. I lived in that town.”

The network called Jennings in at 6 a.m. Friday. “And I’ve been here since,” he said. “Oh, I did go home at 1:30 last night, but I got called back at 4 a.m.”

Some fear that the media will whip the public into a “let’s get-back-at-'em” frenzy that will force the White House into a retaliatory move that it doesn’t want to make.

“There’s a danger of that, and we’re aware of it and using caution,” Jennings said. “But virtually every time we go on the air, it’s my call. Yesterday, CBS beat us on that story about passengers with Jewish-sounding names being taken off the plane, but we didn’t want to go with it until we were completely sure.”

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Meanwhile, the cloud over Flight 847 grows larger and darker, giving added significance to the words Jennings chose to conclude the ABC special.

“Keep your fingers crossed,” he said.


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