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Caveat Emptor


By David S. Hilzenrath

SINCE THE HIJACKING of TWA flight 847 first flashed across American television screens, a chorus of critics have charged the media with complicity in terror. Blinded by prestige, profit, and their own power, U.S. journalists allowed themselves to be exploited by murderers and extortionists, the charge reads.

Before the court of public opinion returns its verdict, it should consider the role of a heretofore unindicted co-conspirator: a pervasive, insidious force--a constant presence powerful enough to impose its will on the so-called free press. That presence was wielding its influence before the hostage crisis, and it's quietly exerting pressure today.

Throughout the ordeal of Flight 847, no less, in the wee hours of the morning, strings from the sidelines. The Constitution guarantees the political freedom of the fourth estate, but it can do nothing to shied news organizations from the free market's invisible hand.

Newspapers and networks are in the business of selling advertisers an audience. Their product must sell before it can enlighten. News operations are continuously trying to guage the public's preferences, and with varying degree of sensitivity, they tailor their products to match. Competition makes it difficult for news organizations not go give the public what it wants.

Commercial considerations often place the news that sells before the news that counts, favoring the sensational over the significant. Thus, Claus Von Bulow's titillating but irrelevant trial Flogs headlines, and the case of the Rhode Island couple accused of killing their infant daughter leads the local news. The publican can blame the press, but it shares the burden of guild; when America watches television, it sees a reflection of itself.

Coverage of the recent hijacking was no exception. At the outset, the media and the perpetrators shared a common cause: both sought an audience. As the terrorists and the terrorized took center stage, Americans turned to television for their front row seats.

The public criticized the media's coverage of the episode, but it also watched attentively. Without the benefit of instant ratings, television knew what the public wanted and what it had to deliver. Was it successful? Fifty-seven percent of the sample in a WCVB-TV (Ch. 5) poll said the media devoted too much attention to the story; they were watching a WCVB broadcast about the crisis at the time.

THE RATINGS FOR news programs rose markedly during the drama, not returning to normal until the final curtain fell.

The important lesson to be learned from the ordeal of Flight 847 is not that the media plays into the hands of hijackers, but rather, that it plays for the public. Before the public summarily condemns journalists, it should take a closer look at its own formative influence. And before the media lightly brushes aside its critics, it would do well to reassess its relationship with society at large.

Television news was at the center of the two-week drama, and its conduct remains the focus of debate. At issue (among other offenses): the relentless scrutiny of the hostages' families. In question: the medium's ability to place newsworthiness above audience pull.

Intimate footage of anxious, grief-stricken, and even elated families added little to the news value of television broadcasts. It clearly boosted their commercial value.

Television may be an entertainment medium, but television news has a higher public responsibility. Broadcast journalism can't afford to let its audience--or its perception of that audience--call the shots.

Fed a steady diet of cops and robber and minor catastrophes, the public instead of edification during the news hour. Fed a healthier diet, low in drama and sensationalism, the average viewer could develop more refined taste.

Instead of contenting itself with the role of follower, television should seize the initiative of leadership. Only by resisting immediate gratification can broadcast companies hope to loosen the invisible hand's constricting grip.

Until the accused repudiates its would be master, it remains guilty as charged.

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