TV IS DANGEROUSLY LOW ON FUEL ON FLIGHT 847
‘Dear President Reagan . . . We implore you not to take any direct military action on our behalf. Please negotiate quickly our immediate release. . . . ‘
With the Flight 847 hostage story appearing to level off, even while many of the jetliner’s passengers remain in the hands of Shia Muslim kidnapers, what do the media do now?
New angles are scarce. Yet how can the media ignore such a critical story, even when there’s nothing new to report?
They’ve about run out of experts to interview; the news and talk programs have recycled the same ones again and again. Typical was Henry Kissinger, who began Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and ended the day on “Nightline,” with several media stops in between. Then Tuesday morning he turned up on NBC’s “Today.”
Many of the authorities interviewed on TV about the hostage seizure were identified as terrorism experts. They seemed to outnumber terrorists. And if America has so many terrorism experts at its disposal, how did we get into this mess in the first place?
Not all the experts gave expert opinions. “Every hostage released is a hostage saved,” one shockingly disclosed. Thank you, and good night.
Considering TV’s awesome hunger for fresh interviewees, Uli Derickson’s continued evasion of the media is baffling. Derickson is the articulate flight attendant who spoke about the hijacking with such clarity and candor in a televised press conference after she and four other flight attendants were released by the terrorists.
ABC had announced on the air that Derickson would be interviewed by Peter Jennings on the network’s Sunday-night hostage special, but she never materialized. “I don’t know what happened to her,” Jennings said afterward. “She was sitting in our room here waiting to go on, when the FBI came and got her. Maybe she was too open at the press conference.”
Media desperate for a story, or desperate to keep one in the public eye, can be reckless and dangerous media.
Disregarding the feelings of the victim’s family, ABC several times showed a graphic photograph of the battered, bloodied body of Robert Dean Stethem, the U.S. Navy diver beaten and shot in the head aboard the jetliner.
Showing the photograph served no purpose other than to shock viewers.
There were other potential excesses. Would the media whip the nation into a revenge-at-any-cost frenzy? Would the media bait President Reagan and pressure him into the kind of hasty retaliatory act that he seems determined to avoid?
Many Americans seem genuinely outraged by the hostage incident. Yet there may be less pressure on Reagan to strike back, as NBC’s John Chancellor noted Tuesday, than there was on Jimmy Carter during the 1979-81 Iranian hostage odyssey, when militants infuriated Americans by parading their U.S. captives before TV cameras.
Still, a lot of angry Americans have been getting a chance to say their piece on TV this week.
CBS conducted on-the-street interviews about the hostage seizure and used some of those comments at commercial breaks for “The CBS Morning News.” Not everyone sounded trigger-happy, but one man advocated “blowing away” Beirut as retribution. Another wanted two Shia Muslims executed for every American killed.
Street opinion about the hijacking was also surveyed on “The CBS Evening News,” with correspondent Bernard Goldberg concluding, “The messages are coming in from all around America: Enough is enough!”
That was dangerously close to being a call to battle.
The networks also were not letting Reagan forget his past rhetoric, especially his campaign criticism of Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage matter and his 1981 promise of “swift and effective retribution” against terrorists. Reagan probably would love to burn the tape, and tried to wriggle out of that tight spot during his televised press conference Tuesday.
Yet ABC’s Sam Donaldson concluded on Tuesday’s “World News Tonight” that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Reagan’s and Carter’s handling of their respective hostage dilemmas.
There was more.
Barry Serafin’s Tuesday-night piece on ABC also contrasted Reagan’s present restraint with his past saber rattling. But that was a marshmallow vis-a-vis a piece on NBC’s “Nightly News” by Marvin Kalb.
Sounding like a prosecutor, Kalb ticked off examples of anti-American terrorism under Reagan, following each with the accusatory comment: “Again, none of the retribution this President has promised.”
Intentional or not, Kalb sounded angry that Reagan hadn’t kept his word and appeared to be urging retribution against the Shia terrorists.
It was Field Marshal Kalb’s turn to be blasted later that night during Larry King’s interview/call-in show on Cable News Network. Kalb’s report seemed to excoriate Reagan, complained a caller, adding, “I really believe that’s a good story, but it shouldn’t be done right in the middle of the situation.” At least not the accusatory way Kalb did it.
As expected, the press has become part of a saga that may occupy America indefinitely. Meanwhile, you can just bet that wheels are turning in Hollywood and scripts are already being plotted and deals cooked up for the spine-chilling dramatic reenactment of the ordeal of Flight 847.
What now? We wait for the movie.