Mar 31, 2003  •  Post A Comment

OK-cue grieving mother!
Cue grieving aunt and uncle who only saw their nephew once a year and never really liked him!
Cue grieving neighbor who frankly is having a hard time grieving but wants to be on television anyway!
And cue poor old Constant Viewer here, who is amazed that a war less than two weeks old has already produced such an unfortunate excess of grieving-survivor interviews conducted solely for their emotional, not informational, potential-interviews that producers often refuse to let end until somebody has cried on camera.
Mostly you run into these unfortunate people-people who arguably are being victimized a second time after having lost a loved one in the war-on the networks’ morning news shows, which we still call “news” shows even if they have like 2 percent news content.
The producers who order up these interviews and the poor bookers who have to call up traumatized people and plead with them to appear are pouncing on people at a moment of supreme vulnerability. Obviously, these are not ambush interviews; the subjects come willingly into the studios to be miked up and IFB’d and plopped down on a couch. But that does not make them any nobler. Or newsier.
Less painful, perhaps, but more plentiful, are staged electronic reunions between men or women “over there” and folks back home. Some of these are presented with such a hyped sense of drama that you’d think the war had been going on for months.
Those talked into participating sometimes become dumbfounded when the lights go on. It could also be battle fatigue; the family members may have been sitting there for an hour waiting for producers to squeeze them into the proceedings. Some networks even paste “exclusive” banners over such reunion sessions, thus boasting that they were able to nab the unsuspecting family members before another network did.
On CNN Friday morning, Paula Zahn conducted one of these horrors-on the surface, well-intentioned and even warm-hearted, but under the brave smiles and misty eyes, something calculated and maybe even cruel was going on.
Zahn was the go-between for a Marine pilot on an aircraft carrier and his wife and two boys, ages 2 and 3, back in a TV studio near their home. The family members were expected to have an intimate conversation in front of the pry-eyed viewing nation, hampered among other things by those gaping silent pauses that afflict global satellite feeds.
The Marine was talking via videophone, so he could not see the wife and kiddies, though they could see jerky, fuzzy images of him.
“You have not seen your husband since Nov. 9,” Zahn told the wife. “How does he look to you right now?” Gosh, what might the answer be to that? These interviews are peppered with Questions That Can Only Be Answered One Way.
Earlier, the Marine told his wife and sons, “I wish I could see you guys.” Yes, that would have been nice. The sons were by now “mugging for the camera,” Zahn said almost scoldingly. Imagine that, two little boys abusing the privilege of being exploited by CNN!
Zahn then tried to promote an intimate chat between husband and wife, who had endured a five-month separation. “Feel free to ask him a question or two here,” Zahn told the wife. Pause. “Go ahead, Theresa,” Zahn prodded. “Oh, OK,” said Theresa, not feeling free at all. “Umm … Umm … .” It was a painful failure to communicate. But even though it seemed unfair to both the husband and the wife, one must admit they were probably grateful for the experience-whatever CNN’s motivation in bringing it about.
And we mustn’t overgeneralize. A bad concept can still result in great television. Earlier in the week, ABC’s Charlie Gibson, one of the true unsung heroes of war coverage so far, was essentially in Zahn’s position on “Good Morning America.” Onscreen from Landstahl, Germany, where he was recovering from serious injuries suffered in Iraq, an Army staff sergeant was able to talk to, though not see, his wife and children, who were at home on the phone in a small town in Georgia.
Sgt. James Villafane spoke to his wife, Susan, and then his two little girls, Samantha and Brittany. Gibson stepped aside graciously and let them talk, and their encounter became tenderly symbolic of all wartime separations. Villafane wanted to speak to his son, the youngest of the children, even though Susan said he was still asleep. Gibson said, in effect, go ahead and wake him up, we can wait.
We heard her take the phone down a hall and into the little boy’s room and heard him come groggily to life. And the father and son were vicariously reunited.
What had gone so wrong with several other such interviews went touchingly right with this one. Gibson could have cut the interview off after the daughters spoke. Traditional producer wisdom would have been to end it there. But Gibson took a chance and let it play out. And when the segment ended, and Charlie threw it to Tony Perkins for the weather, there were tears in Tony’s eyes. And his weren’t the only ones.
Zahn had spoken of “the amazing things you can do with this technology we have.” But it was Gibson who actually did one of them.