The best TV coverage could be none at all

Aug 2, 2005 4:18 AM

Television is at its best when something is happening, and at its boring, annoying and irritating worst when something is not.

I trust you have seen enough to last a lifetime of English bobbies in their silly domed hats and canary-yellow emergency vests, walking around and talking to one another in front of yellow "Do Not Cross" tapes. This is what happens when television has nothing to show, but time to fill.

We all have seen and heard that bevy of CNN pretties — all looking like former cheerleaders but acting as if they had graduated from MIT — discussing the gravity of the foam insulation that fell off Discovery’s fuel tanks. It did not hit Discovery, but hell, this is television, and the drama needs to be sustained.

When the action is invisible — as it is with the investigation of the London subway bombing — television becomes unbearable. It repeats, over and over, the same clips, some days old.

It is almost unbearable to listen to the pretty script readers do this, robotically, with no expression, but with shrillness. CNN and other networks must audition through glass windows without sound. They should sit in another room with the TV on elsewhere, and listen to the high pitched screeches from the set. It is even painful when a real professional like Christine Amanpour, with a pleasing modulated voice, has to stand before a mike, with a graphic below her reading, "London Terror," and try to fill time when there is nothing new to say.

This is why the wordsmiths of the game, people like the late Woody Broun and the retired Jack Whitaker and the long departed Edward R. Murrow, were so superb.

Their skill at stringing words of beauty together to paint vivid verbal images made them delights to hear, rather than the droning, chalk-on-blackboard sounds that pour from the tube today.

When there is action to be covered, television is in its glory, and from misfortune occasionally comes fortune.

Aaron Brown of CNN is an example. Before 9-11, he was a local name. His cool coverage of the disaster, from his distant vantage point, displayed his full talents, and today his low key, unpretentious style makes him popular nationwide.

Our two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have ruined television along with the country. They have produced a swarm of retired generals, none of whom is in position to know what really is happening, but all pontificating as if they did.

When crimes horrendous or curious enough to be fodder for the tube occur, a horde of former district attorneys or assistant district attorneys or federal attorneys (are all former DA’s good looking blondes?) descends on every channel, particularly Fox, explaining the psyche of the criminals, known or unknown; what drove them to commit the crimes; and, as in the Natalee Holloway case in Aruba, sheer guessing and speculation about what might have happened. And then of course there is Nancy Grace. God save us.

What really needs to be seen on television, over and over, is the neglect of the world, and particularly of this country, to the starving children and adults of Nigeria.

It should be shown on an endless tape in the White House, the gaunt skeletons, the flies crawling over the babies faces and bodies, the desperate eyes of mothers, so that our strutting, swaggering leader might send real help.

Nigeria, of course, has nothing that we want or need — no oil, no precious minerals, no gold, no friends, nothing — so it is given short shrift. Brief clips are shown, and an interview or two with someone frantically trying to generate help, but the camera does not linger long on this scene of disaster, unpleasant to watch or think about.

There are no English bobbies in yellow jackets in Nigeria. Just starving kids and their families. So back to those barrier tapes and the London Terror, and literally to hell with those human beings dying by the thousands.

The cost of one day of maintaining the men and machines in Iraq and Afghanistan would feed the unfortunate victims of Darfur for months. The leaders of the world, and of television, should give that a little thought.