KIDNAPERS IN LEBANON PLAY 'HOST' TO TRAGEDY

Nice guys.

Nabih Berri and his Shia militiamen who released the American hostages Sunday could teach a public relations course on how to be a kidnaper and be viewed as benevolent too.

You saw the Amal showmen on TV, at the interviews, at the farewell dinner with the creamy cake. Real backslappers. Real wild and crazy party guys. Real sweethearts. Real softies. Real marshmallows.

With real machine guns.

Who would have predicted such clashing tones and images? There has been more hostility among the networks scrambling to cover the ordeal of TWA Flight 847 than between the hostages and their captors.

Oops! Their hosts .

That's how chief hostage spokesman Allyn Conwell described the kidnapers when he and two other hostages were interviewed at a seaside restaurant last week by ABC's Charles Glass.

"My compliments to the restaurant our hosts have brought us to today," Conwell said.

You could see where all this was going to lead if the Americans had stayed in Beirut instead of being sent to Damascus en route to complete liberation. We would have been calling them guests of Amal by now, instead of hostages.

This bizarre and tragic story put the media in a box and raised critical ethical questions about the coverage. How much could the American press cover without becoming a tool of the kidnapers? Was it possible to end the hostage and media manipulation without ignoring the story? Where did sound news judgment end and irresponsibility begin? There are no easy answers.

When militant Shiites early last week staged an anti-American rally in Beirut, shouting slogans and shaking fists at the camera, the march for the media led all American newscasts. It appeared that TV was going to rev up the nation for revenge.

Yet the Shia Amal was too media-wise to allow that.

Most of the stories and pictures from Beirut during the last two weeks have been benign, seeming almost to pacify America and gain sympathy for the kidnapers.

When Berri wasn't holding his own televised press conferences or giving TV interviews, he and his Amal spoke to the White House through the hostages and their families, used them to make a case for Israel's immediate release of 735 Lebanese prisoners.

The hostages had become pawns. In a remarkable turn of events, the articulate Conwell and other hostages had become the Amal's most effective spokesmen (experts say it's common for prisoners to agree with their captors in a subconscious effort to ensure their own survival). And through them, Berri was competing equally with Israel for the support of the American people.

The networks and many newspapers were calling the hostage ordeal a "crisis." But the TV pictures delivered a different message.

Saturday morning found Cable News Network beaming back some extraordinary unedited footage from the Beirut schoolyard where most of the American hostages were mulling with their captors, awaiting transfer to Damascus by convoy (they would have to wait until Sunday) and another, Syrian, TV show.

Viewing the raw footage for the first time along with viewers, CNN's Don Farmer in Atlanta could hardly believe his eyes. "Guys with machine guns on their backs are moving luggage like skycaps," he said.

Some of the guards embraced their hostages and kissed them goodby. Others stood lookout. More clashing images.

This unreality pervaded the entire hostage ordeal.

Never more so than on Friday's "Good Morning America," which had set up separate audio interviews with Berri in his barricaded Beirut home and with Conwell's wife, Olga, in Cyprus. Host David Hartman ended up interviewing not only Berri and Olga Conwell, but also Allyn Conwell and his fellow hostages Simon Grossmayer and Father James W. McLoughlin.

Hartman did not know the hostages were with Berri until Berri told him on the line. Live except in the East, it was an extraordinary exchange during which Berri and the Conwells and Hartman were able to speak to one another.

"I hope to be with you soon, honey," Conwell told his wife.

"Allyn, are you OK and do you know when you're going to come home?" Olga asked a little later.

"Hold on, honey," Conwell said a little later. "Let me let you speak to Mr. Berri."

Berri addressed her as "Olga"--he was holding her husband captive, yet addressing her by her first name--then assured her, "I will take care for your husband."

Hartman spoke to Grossmayer. Then he spoke to Father McLoughlin. And then he asked him, "Father, would you ask Mr. Berri to come back on the phone, please."

At one point the international operator cut in on Hartman and Berri. "Are you through? Mr. Berri, do you hear me?"

You had to pinch yourself to remember that this was not just another example of old acquaintances reaching out and touching someone a la telephone commercial, and that Berri was not a friend of the family.

To Hartman's credit, he several times stated his awareness of what was unfolding. "Here we are in the media. . . . arranging conversations," he said. "We hope we're part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said.

Later that morning, Dan Rather also interviewed Berri and the hostages by phone on CBS, which declined to air the interview live. "We think there is some danger in putting on the hostages in this kind of interview live, that it also presents a kind of situation where suddenly the captors can come on and say something," Rather told Bob Schieffer on "The CBS Morning News." "We just think we have to keep control of the air," Rather said.

"We're not turning this network over to the terrorists," Schieffer added.

It sounded like one network rebuking another. One could argue, however, that all the networks had already, in one degree or another, relinquished control to the Amal.

Why did "Good Morning America" put "Berri Theater" on live? The program had arranged with Berri for Hartman to tape the interview at 5:30 a.m. but couldn't get through to Beirut until after 7 a.m. when Hartman was already on the air, producer Amy Hirsh said from New York. "I wasn't about to give up that interview," she said.

"I was very comfortable about what we did, even though I had concerns," Hartman said later that morning from New York.

Hartman wondered if the "logistic problems" that delayed the interview were legitimate or manufactured by Berri because he wanted the interview to be live. "I didn't know the hostages were in his office until he told me live," Hartman said. "I wondered then if that too was a setup."

This was not the only time that the networks had disagreed during the hostage ordeal, as NBC and CBS had repeatedly clashed with ABC over what was "pool" coverage and what was a network exclusive.

Finally even the Amal got into the act, setting up its own press office and at one point complaining to ABC that one of ABC's "exclusive" interviews should have been designated pool coverage.

According to NBC, the following notice was posted at Beirut's Commodore Hotel:

"The Central Press Bureau of the Amal movement declares that all film taken of the hostages can be used freely by all press agencies and television networks."

"It's a Woody Allen scenario," said CNN senior vice president Ed Turner from Atlanta. "These are goat herders, and now they are declaring what is a video pool."

Goat herders . . . or media herders?

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