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Jewish World Review March 11, 2002/ 27 Adar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Cookies for Cokie, Or: Disney animates more than Mickey Mouse -- ANYONE who grew up on Disney movies and cartoons still does a double take on seeing Uncle Walt's fine old name linked with news.

The little girl who delighted in the dancing elephants in "Fantasia,'' who cried at the death of a deer in "Bambi'' and who argued with her friends over who was the best of the seven dwarfs (Happy, of course) in "Snow White,'' finds it difficult now to associate the name of Disney with anything but imagination and creativity. "Imagined'' and "created'' is definitely not what the news is supposed to be.

It was inevitable that the line between news and entertainment would become blurred when Disney bought ABC. That mix is very much the way of television these days. The debate, such as it is, over whether David Letterman, a comedian, should replace Ted Koppel and "Nightline'' dismays, but it doesn't shock.

TV news has always been as much entertainment as news, though it isn't always polite to say so, and David Letterman, with his schmoozing with pop stars, celebrities, occasional politicians and goofy dogs, cats and sometimes even snakes, delivers both. (Ted Koppel doesn't.) When Cokie Roberts says she will leave her prominent perch in television news, she makes the newspapers like a star from the Hollywood firmament, rather than as simply the co-anchor of "This Week'' with Sam Donaldson (not everyone's idea of Cary Grant, or even Tom Hanks).

Even the stodgy BBC is frustrated with the dullness of its magisterial newsreaders, which is what "anchormen'' really are, and the lack of flair in the delivery of news, especially political news. "The Beeb'' is searching for "a way of re-engaging their viewers with the political process.'' Oh, dear.

One idea the Beeb is bouncing around is a British version of our political soap opera, "The West Wing.'' Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. The notion that fictional machinations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can be translated to 10 Downing Street is, in the words of one columnist in the London Daily Telegraph, "as absurd as setting a Montana cowboy drama on a Dorset dairy farm, simply because they're both geographically western.'' Judith Dench could have played Margaret Thatcher, but Tony Blair, as cute as he is, doesn't lend himself to English-style drama, even on the small screen.

Although the prime minister has shown political robustness in support of the West's war on terrorism, watching the English without an empire is something like watching Richard III without a horse -- fit for dramatic denouement, perhaps, but not every week. English liberals aren't as interesting as ours and the Tories have disappeared down the memory hole.

If they have to do it, better to do it with satire, which the English, even without Evelyn Waugh, do better than anyone else. Instead of satirizing the upper classes, this time they could do their lefties for laughs. The New Statesmen, once the thoughtful voice of the respectable left, has become merely noise against the war on terrorism, emboldening shrill critics of President Bush and Tony Blair. The Guardian gives sensible shoes a bad name.

The House of Commons might once have been the right setting for television drama, with fluent wit and humor, but those days are gone and the British MPs are but shadows of the orators of yesteryear. The MPs merely suffer from Senate-envy.

"There is not an MP in the House of Commons who would not give a small body part to swap their enfeebled existence for the glorious life of a United States senator,'' writes the Guardian's Matthew Engel from America. What they envy is the attention our senators can summon with interrogation of witnesses before their committees. "Some days the corridors of the Senate office buildings outshine the Green Room for the David Letterman Show.''

This brings us back to the mix of entertainment and news, the fusion of politics and celebrity. Ordinary life is lost in the flash and speed of sound and light.

"I've been working weekends for a very long time,'' said Cokie Roberts, explaining why she's leaving her Sunday-morning show. "I've got three grandchildren.'' She wants time to take them to a Saturday matinee of a Disney special, or to giggle with them as they discover the magic of "Fantasia,'' "Bambi'' and "Snow White.'' She might even discover that the grandkids' favorite dwarf is Happy.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS