Tears and Tape Show TV's Power to Sway Millions

Oh what a circus! Oh what a show! --Che Guevara in "Evita"

Two faces.

One was contorted, distraught, impassioned, weepy, the burdened face of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart confessing "sin" and begging for forgiveness Sunday in a sophisticated television spectacle that seemed to form the screen into a single teardrop.

The other was unemotional, controlled, almost vacant, the unshaven face of Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, a hostage somewhere in Lebanon, blankly listing his captors' demands in a crude, flickering videotape aired on American TV Monday.

These were separate and vastly different performances, yet each demonstrated anew the shrewd use of TV to reach and manipulate millions.

It's been a bad season for Great Communicators, from Oral Roberts to Jim and Tammy Bakker to Ronald Reagan, who's not as convincing as he used to be. And now comes the finger-pointing, hot-preaching Swaggart, perhaps the most accomplished of the prime-time clerics, embarrassed by disclosure of his alleged sexual misconduct and forced to speak from his usual TV pulpit, this time seeking to redeem himself .

The cumulative long-range impact of this scandal and others in TV evangelism remains unmeasured. Yet even nonbelievers--after watching Swaggart Sunday in respectful awe and later hearing of the light punishment imposed on him by the Assemblies of God church--must be satisfied that he'll emerge from this brawnier than ever.

"Take a look at someone who is a master of communication," an admiring Ted Koppel said about Swaggart Monday on his "Nightline" program examining this latest episode's impact on the TV evangelical movement. "You had to have seen Jimmy Swaggart work his congregation."

You had to have.

Speaking before 7,000 worshipers at his World Faith Center in Baton Rouge, La., and untold millions more via TV, Swaggart was magnificent, as white-robed members of the choir were visible in the blurry background, dabbing at their eyes.

The hoarse whisper. The sobbing. The trembling lower lip. The self-flagellation over a "sin" that he did not specify. Now cut to Swaggart's wife, Frances, nodding sympathetically. Now cut to Swaggart's son, Donnie, repeating, "I love you" again and again. Now cut back to Jimmy, the man of power with a sensitive heart, holding nothing back, revealing he had reproached himself "10,000 times through 10,000 tears" and asked . . . " Why? "

They gave him a standing ovation.

Later, the Swaggarts boarded their private jet and flew off, while Lt. Col. William R. Higgins remained a captive across the seas.

Swaggart excerpts were repeated on TV throughout the day Monday, sharply contrasting with the TV message that reportedly pro-Iranian terrorists were beaming to America through their hostage, Higgins.

Blinking frequently and appearing somewhat dazed, Higgins seemed to be reading a script as he criticized his government and ticked off his captors' demands in exchange for his freedom ("Two . . . the release of all detained Mujahedeen Lebanese . . . ").

Delivered to a Western news agency in Beirut, the Higgins tape blitzed American TV Monday, airing on just about every news program but ABC's "World News Tonight."

It's not always easy locating the line separating a news event from a staged event, and even staged events sometimes merit coverage.

"Manipulation is never a clear line," said Jeanee von Essen, CNN vice president for foreign news, from Atlanta. "The fact that a hostage is taken is a form of manipulation. But hostage tapes are a method we use to help tell the story. It gives insight that he (Higgins) is alive. People who know him and experts can make conclusions about the kind of stress he's in."

But those conclusions could just as easily have been made by experts and Higgins' family in private showings that would have denied his abductors publicity.

Doing things by rote becomes a habit, whether it's a matter of TV automatically acceding to White House requests for free media or automatically granting a stage to terrorists. Just as ABC, CBS and NBC should be applauded for recently denying President Reagan free air time to lobby Congress about Contra aid, therefore, "World News Tonight" deserves praise for its independent course concerning the Higgins tape.

It was a tough call, but "World News Tonight" made the right call.

"This is not etched in stone," said "World News Tonight" anchor and senior editor Peter Jennings from New York Monday. "But this time, we said, 'We're not going to be used by the terrorists.' Every time one of these things come up, we automatically put it on the air. Why not automatically sit down and talk about it?"

Jennings attributed the no-tape decision to talks with ABC London correspondent Charles Glass since his escape last August after being held hostage for two months by Muslim fundamentalists in South Beirut. A month after nabbing Glass, his captors released the inevitable videotape on which he read a statement saying he was a spy for the CIA, which the State Department denied. Glass recanted the tape after his escape.

Glass believes that the airing of hostage tapes plays into the hands of the captors. "This (the "World News Tonight" decision) may or may not turn the tide on this issue," Glass said from London. "Since I got out, I'm on the record at ABC as being against showing these things. I personally did not want my tape broadcast. There was somebody behind my head with a gun that no one could see."

It was Glass who provided some of ABC's most dramatic coverage of the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 when he was able to interview some of the Americans being held captive in Beirut. "I'm not against putting a hostage on the air if I interview him with my crew," he said, "but not if his captors make a home video and put a gun to his head."

The decision of "World News Tonight" to take a different path will not stem political abductions. At the very minimum, however, it's a symbolic act of resistance against terrorists by denying them at least one segment of the media they seek to exploit.

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