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Big 3 Crisis Coverage--What Coup?

The crisis in the Soviet Union had continued to be the deafening heavy-metal beat heard globally. And still, the Big Three networks pitty-patted this momentous story recently by denying it extended exposure in prime time.

A news-break headline here and there. A few minutes on nightly newscasts. Early morning and irregular late-night coverage. All of this was the newspaper equivalent of a two-column story on Page 33.

But finally, Thursday night, the story was scheduled to move to the front page.

ABC’s front page, that is, as the network announced its intention to proceed that evening with its ambitious live “town meeting” telecast from the Kremlin, co-starring Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin.

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Simulcast on ABC Radio and early-morning Soviet TV, it was to air at 9 p.m. Pacific and Mountain Time in the United States, meaning that Americans in other time zones could see it only by staying up late or recording it. Too bad.

The telecast--in which Gorbachev and Yeltsin were to answer questions from ordinary Americans in the United States--was first scheduled for Monday. But that plan went awry, the network said, when both men decided to delay their encounter with U.S. citizens until after this week’s tumultuous session of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where Soviet transformation was gaining official status.

ABC’s format called for connecting the two leaders with Peter Jennings in New York and with audiences at 10 locations in the United States. They had already been connected to CNN.

While ABC News labored agonizingly this week to give birth to its 800-pound bear of all Moscow telecasts, CNN heroically went about its business, delivering separate, live, sit-down interviews with the two men at the epicenter of the Soviet Union’s historic metamorphosis.

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It was Gorbachev who Sunday sat down with CNN Moscow bureau chief Steve Hurst and Yegor Yakovlev, the new chairman of Soviet Television. Then on Tuesday it was Yeltsin who was interviewed at length by Hurst and CNN correspondent-producer Claire Shipman, during which he advocated limiting nuclear arms in Russia and made other statements that were of note. Credit the quality of the interview to the low-key but effective work of Shipman and in particular Hurst, who has been the heart of CNN’s steady, dependable, sometimes-spectacular post-coup coverage.

In an era where TV news interviews of epic political figures are hailed merely when there is an interview--regardless of whether it produces news--CNN’s sessions with Gorbachev and especially Yeltsin stood out dramatically.

When it comes to journalistic coups, the latter was another giant one for CNN, marking Yeltsin’s first true interview on Western TV since the recent abortive coup that enhanced his stature. Contrast that with the ballyhooed few thin sound bites that Diane Sawyer wangled from Yeltsin while he was holed up in the Russian Federation building before the coup collapsed.

If only someone could wring more prime-time coverage from the networks.

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With such a performance, how can they hope to maintain news credibility? They can’t. And with the new season of prime-time entertainment shows about to start, added prime time for the Soviets seems less and less likely.

So much for relevance and responsibility.

THE ALMIGHTY . . . DOLLAR: Stephen W. Griffin, chief operating officer of Dallas-based Family Entertainment Network, has come through on his promise of “significant modifications” in a Jew-bashing, program-length commercial touting a 12-part set of videos titled “Animated Stories From the New Testament.”

That leaves intact, however, the series itself, which is under fire from some Jewish organizations and Biblical scholars for its hateful depictions of big-nosed Jews and scriptural interpretations that feed anti-Semitism.

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Or as Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Wednesday upon viewing the revised 30-minute commercial provided by Griffin: “We now have a benign infomercial and a malignant product.”

Griffin says he will arrange for “respected Jewish leaders” to review the network’s future programming ideas and scripts.

“We are in no way an anti-Semitic organization, nor would we wish to propagate material which may serve an anti-Semitic position,” he said in a prepared statement. “As Christians, we reject religious intolerance and anti-Semitism of any kind.”

This is one of those cases where the prevalent defense seems to be ignorance. Griffin told me on the phone that he didn’t believe the kid-targeted Bible animations contained negative stereotypes of Jews. “We can’t fix what we don’t know about,” he said. If that’s his level of awareness, and that of everyone else pushing these videos, then where have they been this century?

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The series has been criticized in Los Angeles by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has invited Griffin and his video production team and advisory board to visit the Holocaust memorial and be familiarized with “the historical context from which our concerns emanate.”

The invitation list should be expanded, for the controversial videos are still being sold, and the offensive, unrevised infomercial promoting them is still airing on the Lifetime cable network and numerous stations across the nation.

In Los Angeles, KCOP Channel 13 has dropped the infomercial in response to the controversy. Its local outlet is now Fox-owned KTTV Channel 11, which obviously believes in turning the other cheek when a big payday is involved.

TOADS OF TENNIS: Out my way, cable’s USA Network is available on Channel 17, a number that seems to coincide with the IQ of those guiding its coverage of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York.

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First there’s USA’s replayitis--the impulsive covering up of live action with endless videotape replays of the routine. Must there be a replay of every winning shot? Then come the continual crowd shots that detract from what’s happening on the court. And, oh yes, don’t forget the commercials that wipe out the first point of every third game.

Even worse, though, is the way USA denigrates women’s tennis. A classic case came Wednesday when USA showed a ho-hummer of a five-set men’s doubles match in its entirety, but went to an interview that clipped off the first two games of the second set of a women’s quarterfinal between Monica Seles and Gigi Fernandez. The message was that men’s doubles--usually little more than a lounge act in the public’s eye--is more important than women’s singles.

Plus, USA’s commentators of both genders continually diminish female players by identifying them almost always by first name. Male players are almost always referred to by last name.

Steffi Graff is nearly always “Steffi,” for example, while Stefan Edberg is “Edberg.” And on Wednesday, when Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her brother, Javier Sanchez, played in back-to-back quarterfinals, she was inevitably “Arantxa,” and he was, of course, “Sanchez.”

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A subtle thing, but subtle things shape social consciousness as well as tennis matches.

WHAT’S A GIRL TO DO?: She’s gorgeous, she’s sexy, she’s busty, she’s platinum blond. So when Tai Collins had a damaging story she wanted to get out about Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb, she did what any red-blooded American young woman would do who wanted to build credibility. She posed for Playboy.

Collins so far has offered nothing beyond unsubstantiated charges and innuendo. So what she really knows about Robb’s social habits and political tactics is subject to debate.

What she knows about the media isn’t. She knows they’re suckers or, if not that, panting voyeurs who are happy to trade their air time for some of her flesh-off-the-presses Playboy infamy.

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There she was Wednesday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” dishing the dirt and smiling coquettishly while claiming to have a photograph of herself, Robb and another person that would prove her charges. When King logically and repeatedly urged her to produce it, she refused, saying she didn’t want to ruin Robb’s career.

All those looks, and compassion, too. Next stop--Phil?


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