Sometimes I wonder whether television is covering the same world as the rest of us.

In the world we live in, Saddam Hussein is, at best, a political tyrant. At worst, he’s a raving lunatic. Nowhere — at least nowhere that I know of
— is he considered a prize.

Except in the land of TV.

For the past month, as Hussein’s lust for power brought the world to the brink of war, the networks have been scurrying for interviews. They sent their biggest names to the desert in hopes of securing one. Dan Rather went there. Ted Koppel went there. Tom Brokaw went there. CBS. ABC. NBC. Behind-the-scenes types jockeyed with Hussein’s henchmen, saying, basically,
“Pick us.” “No, pick us.”

At one point, even Jesse Jackson showed up. With a camera crew. Last time I looked, Jesse Jackson was in politics, not covering it. But there he was, nodding at the Iraqis and saying he had come to talk to the big man himself. For this, Jackson was reportedly paid $125,000 by the sensationalist program
“Inside Edition.” Are we supposed to take Jackson seriously after this?

Anyhow, the prize was won by Rather, of CBS, who was whisked to the presidential palace Wednesday and granted a chat with the madman himself. Of course, it wasn’t exactly the kick-down-the-doors stuff that they like to do on “60 Minutes.” The Iraqis told Rather only Iraqi camera crews would be used. Or else Dan could forget it. They also demanded that at least 60 minutes of the 90-minute talk be aired in full, presumably prime time. Or else Dan could forget it. Usually, journalists don’t accept a lot of ground rules.

Dan said OK. Nothing to brag about

The interview aired Wednesday night, not only on the “CBS Evening News,” but in an hour-long special between 10 and 11 p.m. The words “CBS News Exclusive” kept flashing on the screen, letting the whole world know who had won the Saddam Raffle.

As near as I can tell, the conversation didn’t change a thing. The hostages are still stuck there. Gas prices are still too high. And the threat of war is just a few inches from Hussein’s none-too-stable fingertips.

Yet CBS was all smiles Thursday morning, as if it had hooked the big fish. Its publicity department — which, like the other networks’, has been bragging every day about where their people are, as if someone cared — was delighted with its prize. USA Today called it “a coup.” Even Rather’s competitors admitted defeat. Said NBC’s Brokaw: “Dan hit a home run with this one.”

Now, maybe I’m missing something here. But since when did snaring an interview become more important than the news that came out of it? I see this pattern all the time in our business. People talk about “getting’ someone — she “got” Warren Beatty, he “got” Magic Johnson, they “got” Hussein — as if their consent to be on your cameras or in your note pad is accomplishment enough.

Come on. Nothing said in that interview broke new ground. No home runs were hit. Actually, you could argue that Hussein used CBS for his own devious publicity purposes. And it should disturb you that the network seemed only too willing to comply, given that magic word “exclusive.” That’s because one magic word leads to another: ratings. No place for PR

And that, of course, is what this is all about, and why this kind of network frenzy is so dangerous. Big money is riding on this Persian Gulf crisis, but it’s not just defense department spending or oil prices. It’s deodorant and sneakers and light beer and everything else sold during the commercials of these “news” programs. CBS is so happy with the boosted ratings, it is considering a regular late-night news show, a la ABC’s
“Nightline,” which, you may recall, was also born in a hostage crisis.

Aren’t we missing the point? People’s lives are at stake. The world is in danger. This isn’t about ratings or “getting” somebody; this is real. The brink of war. Publicity departments have no place here, and who beat whom to an interview is not an issue. Making it one only trivializes the real news, and shame on anyone who would do that to the families of hostages or soldiers now stationed there.

Personally, I find it a little disgusting seeing Rather or any responsible journalist lapping at the heels of a nut such as Hussein. This man has people killed. And yet there was Dan, strolling with Saddam at the palace, reportedly “talking about fly fishing.”

One can only hope that the American public can see through this TV industry power-play. You never know. The ratings showed that, after all the fuss, Rather’s exclusive chat with Saddam Wednesday finished dead last — behind reruns of NBC’s “Hunter” and ABC’s “Equal Justice.”

Maybe America is smarter than they think.

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