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Beatty Puts the Finger on the Media Culprit : Television: The misuse of technology has led to trivial programming. But on CNN, an investigative unit is off to a promising start.

“We gotta get out of all this baloney,” Warren Beatty lectured Phil Donahue.

Beatty had just attacked “the technology"--presumably television--for burying us in trivia and not sufficiently enlightening the public in an age that begs for enlightenment.

Well, c’mon. Beatty was trying to have it both ways.

After all, this was what, his 487th TV appearance promoting his movie “Dick Tracy”? So frequent are his TV visits that he even jokes about becoming a regular “publicity machine.” So this bit of baloney--offering himself for public scrutiny and mindless interrogation about his private life in exchange for free advertising time--was of his own design.

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What else was he doing on Monday--in the first of two hours he had taped with Donahue to help keep the “Dick Tracy” publicity wheels moving--but making his own sizable contribution to TV’s ever-clicking ticker tape of baloney?

Otherwise, Beatty’s point about the medium’s frequent abuse and misuse was well taken.

What the sultry Madonna character Breathless Mahoney says about herself in “Dick Tracy"--"You don’t know if you wanna hit me or kiss me"--also applies to TV. On some occasions, it’s a joy, but increasingly it’s also Stepford Wives talking to other Stepford Wives.

It’s not the technology that has betrayed us, however, but we who have betrayed the technology by so often squandering it on drivel. The “Donahue” hour was a good example, as Beatty himself observed in his oblique manner even while being a co-conspirator.

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His reference to baloney came not long after that master poseur Donahue--who is nothing these days if not the dutiful servant of inquiring minds--had opened the show by asking Beatty the question on the tip of every tabloid’s tongue. Fasten your seat belts:

Had Beatty slept with his “Dick Tracy” supporting star Madonna?

Feigning shock at the question, Beatty responded good-naturedly by stammering and not responding at all. It was shortly after this that he disparaged baloney and “infotainment” by correctly noting that TV news programs and their look-alikes are, in the main, much more likely to explain diet plans to their viewers than such weightier, critical issues as the savings and loan scandal and the deficit.

It was an amiable critique from Beatty, but one that Donahue, who has weighed in with his share of diet shows but is a tad light on the deficit and the S&L; problem, seemed to take personally.

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It’s the people, not the technology (no one here seemed to want to say “television”) that’s at fault, replied Donahue, whose once-smart program has mentally atrophied in recent years while competing with TV’s overflowing bilge. If the people want boring programs on the S&L; scandal and the deficit, he added, “the technology will give it to them.”

Beatty wasn’t swayed. “What you’re saying,” he argued, “is that you gotta make the savings and loan crisis entertaining. I think we gotta be less entertaining.”

He might as well have been preaching nonviolence to murderous Flattop.

What communications scholar Neil Postman wrote in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” still applies to TV’s vast array of information programs: “Much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.”

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Meanwhile, it was onward this week, for that “publicity machine” Beatty had other TV shows to visit.

There is a place on TV for bona-fide inquiring minds, however. No, not ABC, CBS or NBC, or the tabloids.

It’s CNN, whose formation of an ambitious investigative unit last March under former “ABC Closeup” executive producer Pam Hill added to the 10-year-old network’s already considerable esteem. Hill’s group won’t be probing Beatty’s relationship with Madonna.

With rare exceptions, TV’s investigative reporters have shrunk to a precious few, which shines an even brighter light on this 30-person CNN unit that already has produced series on college basketball recruiting scandals, money laundering by deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and insurance fraud in the Louisiana state government.

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This week’s five-parter should please Beatty. It digs into the S&L; crisis, called a “fiscal Vietnam” by new CNN hand Brooks Jackson, former chief investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His partner here is former NBC White House correspondent Ken Bode.

It’s especially shocking to see Jackson, in a brief cutaway shot, actually taking notes during one of his interviews, a bad habit from his newspaper days that he’ll undoubtedly curb as he gains TV experience.

These segments run as long as 16 minutes each, compared with the mere 22-minute news hole in an entire evening newscast on ABC, CBS and NBC. So, in a sense, what CNN gives you here spread across a week (at multiple times each day--4 a.m., 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.) is a full-length documentary.

CNN’s previous investigative unit lasted just three years, dying in 1986. But CNN has matured since then, and its latest investigative crackerjacks are off to a promising start.

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Tapes of Monday’s first and Friday’s concluding segment were made available in advance for review purposes. The opener was less an investigation than a refreshingly clear overview of the S&L; calamity put simply enough for anyone to understand. The fifth segment is also somewhat of a review, but an incisive one that lays much of the blame for this mess on a Congress that Jackson says “depends on and responds to (the) special-interest money” traditionally available from the S&L; crowd and other groups.

Tuesday’s segment examined S&L; havoc in Colorado, and CNN says that today’s reveals a “new twist” in the national story.

Above all, this series dramatizes how the nation’s interests are undermined by the thickly knotted incestuousness of government and special interests. This is fascinating material that contains luminous insights.

Be forewarned, however: It is not entertaining.

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