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NBC Crash Has Impact on Viewers

Television: The investigative report of the faked, fiery GM truck crash on ‘Dateline’ serves as a red flag for TV audiences about the forces that influence what they see.

It reads like a guidebook for viewers increasingly suspicious of TV news in the era of tabloid and reality shows.

The 71-page investigative report of the faked, fiery General Motors truck crash on “Dateline NBC"--released this week--also serves as a red flag for TV audiences about the myriad forces that influence what they see.

It would make a good TV movie--a fact-based film, to use the euphemistically exaggerated lingo of the industry.

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The NBC-commissioned report by two outside lawyers concludes that those who prepared the crash story “did not, in our view, deliberately set out to falsify the ‘test’ ” that supposedly dealt with truck safety. There was a “serious lapse in judgment.”

But to ever-enlightened and skeptical TV viewers, the investigation not only unveils inadequate top management but may also suggest the pressures on news magazines to increase ratings through hyping visual effects and storytelling techniques for dramatic impact.

It’s a well-known TV disease. How many times have you seen meaningless fires on the nightly news just because they give a little TV thrill?

“The evidence suggests,” says the lawyers’ report, “that, to the ‘Dateline’ team, taping a crash fire was at least as important a goal as proving that the GM trucks were defective.”

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Elaborating on the use of fire-inducing devices, the report says: “The ‘Dateline’ team failed to disclose the use of igniters, or sparking devices, during the test to simulate the sparks in a real-life collision.

“Although safety consultants on the scene reported that the fire had been ignited by a broken headlamp, not the igniters, the use of igniters was significantly related to the subject of the demonstrations even if the igniters did not ‘cause’ the fire.

“Yet after assuming throughout the production that the igniters would be disclosed, the ‘Dateline’ team left this relevant fact out of the broadcast.”

There were two crash demonstrations. Says the report: “At the site, the first crash produced a fire and the second crash did not. On the edited videotape, the sequence was reversed so that the crash with the fire comes second. Arguably, the effect of the change was to enhance the drama of the videotape of the ‘test.’

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“It is important to note,” the report continues, “that the script accompanying the videotape never asserts that the crashes occurred in the order shown.”

The report, by attorneys Robert S. Warren and Lewis B. Kaden, also says that the “images in the edited tape convey an impression quite different from what people saw at the scene. The fire was small, it did not consume the cabin of the truck, and it did not last long. Those present . . . noted the fire was not large.

“By contrast, the GM segment reported on accident victims, including a teen-age boy and children, who had burned to death in trucks consumed by flames after side-impact collisions. As can be seen on the field tapes, the fire after the first crash was nothing like the deadly fires in those collisions.”

Says the report: “In the editing process, the use of multiple camera angles produced a visual effect suggesting a larger and more threatening fire.”

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There is food for thought throughout the report. At one point, for instance, it notes that NBC had long been trying to develop a successful news magazine and that “Dateline” was to be modeled after “20/20" but would “aim for a younger audience.” It may be true that younger audiences respond more to strong visuals and that this is a potential pitfall about which producers must be careful.

And then there is this other pitfall: “ ‘Dateline’ is part of the news division at NBC, but it must also work with the entertainment division headquartered in Burbank, Calif. The entertainment division’s promotion staff decides how to promote each ‘Dateline’ segment, proposes promotional materials, and decides how much promotion each segment gets during prime time.”

The blurring of news and entertainment is already a lost battle, and such arrangements don’t help any.

As financially pressed networks slash staffs and stress “teamwork"--which means that news divisions had better understand their importance as profit centers--the blurring is not just an NBC problem. A CBS entertainment executive boasts that his division suggested the news series “Street Stories” after the program first appeared on “48 Hours.”

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Entertainment executives routinely say they have no input in news programs despite their power of promotion. But is it not human nature for some ambitious employees of news programs to know they will probably get better promotion with a dramatic, visually strong story than with a significant but cerebral report?

A pitfall indeed.

Reading the report on “Dateline NBC” reminds one that viewers should look skeptically at news segments bearing questionable labels--in the case of the GM truck story, “unscientific crash demonstrations.”

“A test,” says the report, “is more impressive than a demonstration--it requires experts and it appeals to science. A demonstration is simply a visualization and does not have the force of science behind it.”

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The investigation notes: “No one focused adequately on just how ‘unscientific’ the demonstrations were, and everyone fairly quickly passed on to other elements of the script--the safety consultants’ views on what caused the fire and the question whether a gas cap blowing off without a rupture of the tank constituted part of the alleged safety defect in the fuel system.”

Further: “ ‘Dateline’ set out to do a crash test that would test whether GM trucks would explode into flames in side-impact collisions. It settled for an ‘unscientific demonstration’ that proved nothing and showed no explosion.”

NBC News President Michael Gartner resigned amid the crash-segment furor after GM nailed the network publicly and got an apology on “Dateline.” Three producers of the series resigned this week as the investigative report was issued. The reporter of the segment was reassigned to the network’s Miami station.

Summing up, the report says: “Two problems occurred following the broadcast of the GM segment. The first was that in the initial handling of the GM complaints, the ‘Dateline’ journalists failed to inform Gartner about the complaints and failed to take GM’s protests sufficiently seriously. . . .

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“Second, in dealing with GM’s escalating complaints in the period after Feb. 2, Gartner conducted an insufficient inquiry into the facts behind the demonstrations, and others at NBC deferred to him.”

The NBC incident is over, but as pressures continue for highly promotable TV news segments with strong entertainment values, the temptation for excess remains. Reality shows have passed into the twilight zone, where surrealism and fiction await.


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