Picks and Pans Review: Stars and Stripes

updated 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"Oliver North certainly is a celebrity," Dan Rather enthused. "The star of the hearings." Dub him Olivier North. He made us laugh: I still chortle at the image of his "full-service covert operation," offering guns, prosthetic limbs and missiles-arms, legs and TOWs. And he made us cry—either for him or for the state of the nation. Yes, he entertained us. Ollie's rendition of Amerika had an audience of about 55 million a day—a tenth more viewers than all the soaps and games they preempted and five times more than General Hospital. The anchors gave him rave reviews—"riveting," said at least one—and so did America: 70 percent of those polled by ABC thought North "performed well." Stop right there. That is the clearest symptom I've ever seen of TV's infectious presence in government and politics. TV makes performance a virtue and substance a nuisance. Yes, that is the nature of TV and no, that doesn't mean the hearings should take place off-camera. We have the right to watch the debate over how we—not the White House, the Congress or the NSC, but we—believe our democracy should be run. But the case and the issues are complex and profound, even more so than during Watergate. So as we watch the hearings, we don't need critics—me or Dan Rather. We don't need polls telling us we're entertained; we already know that. What we need are TV reporters reporting. We've heard too much play-by-play—"Hole in one!" wows Tom Brokaw—and too little journalism. The cameras show us an ever-growing stack of love-ya-Ollie telegrams because they're conveniently visual—but only in a rare moment do we hear about what lies beneath the stack. A New York Times-CBS News poll says 62 percent believe North, but 74 percent won't call him a hero and 50 percent say he was not justified in what he did. Listen to that poll—or eavesdrop on we the people in any restaurant, bus or mall—and you will hear more sophisticated, skeptical and intelligent analyses of the Iran-contra scandal than you heard during most spot coverage of the hearings. There have been moments of good reporting on all the networks, but in general they're treating the hearings like a miniseries or a World Series. They're not working vigilantly enough to overcome TV's natural tendency to entertain rather than inform. They need to remember, as Dan Rather also said, that "the real star...is the Constitution."

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