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Jewish World Review April 18, 2000 / 13 Nissan, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

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Not much difference between TV journalists, TV actors -- IMAGINE YOU'RE BEING rolled into the operating room. The machines that go "ping" are pinging away. Men and women wearing masks and surgical gowns swarm around you. And, just before they give you the gas, a young attractive man with lovely hair says, "Just, so you know, I'm not a surgeon. I'm an actor."

Would you stay on the gurney? More to the point, would it take very long for anybody watching to figure out he wasn't a doctor? Now, imagine you're talking, in front of television cameras, to an attractive young man with important hair who can nod on cue. He asks you easy questions and a few tough, but predictable ones. How long could you go without figuring out he wasn't a journalist?

This is the embarrassing fact many at ABC News are eager to cover up, in the wake of the Leonardo DiCaprio boondoggle. As everyone knows by now, ABC News asked young Leo to interview President Clinton as part of its Earth Day coverage.

Leo is, like, way into environmental stuff, which is why he was picked to be the honorary chairhunk of Earth Day 2000. Unfortunately people - almost always unnamed people - inside ABC News went ballistic. Sam Donaldson voiced his displeasure, in subdued tones to be sure, over the brave new world DiCaprio's interview heralds. "Yes, it's a changed business and we ought to recognize that," he said. "But we also all have to recognize that we have to do things according to the standards that will help us retain our credibility."

Donaldson is right of course. Credibility attaches to TV journalists less snugly than even Sam's toupee and therefore they need guard it jealously.

Which brings us back to the operating room analogy. Truly skilled people don't feel threatened by the idea of an actor imitating them. "It was truth in advertising from the get-go with Leo's opening line to the president that he's not a journalist," says the executive producer in charge of Leonardo DiCaprio's, er, "conversation" with the president. That's the point. If DiCaprio didn't declare up front that he's not a journalist, how would the audience ever know?

That's why journalists behave like a trade guild, just like union electricians go ballistic when non-union people are hired to turn off a light switch. They know that if they don't circle the wagons against interlopers, the suits will realize they don't need "trained journalists" to read off of Teleprompters.

TV journalists fiercely guard the fact that they are, in effect, overpaid actors. Does anyone think Barbara Walters really asks any different questions than, say, Barbra Streisand would? Would it take a pioneering career in journalism to ask Woody Harrelson how much hemp he smokes?

Andrea Thompson, an actress who currently appears on ABC's "NYPD Blue," recently decided to quit the television drama this season so she could pursue another career. She wants to play, I mean be, a newscaster.

At least she's doing it the right way and going to a smaller market to pay her dues. She's moving to KQRE in Albuquerque, N.M., the nation's 47th largest television market. The station manager explained recently, "She's better prepared for this job than a lot of people I hire out of the Yumas or El Pasos."

Why is she better prepared? Because she's comfortable in front of a camera, knows how to take direction and - oh yeah - is really hot. Does it strike anybody as a coincidence that the female anchors on MSNBC look like underwear models?

The question is not whether Sam Donaldson or Peter Jennings are experienced journalists. Obviously, they are. Instead, this DiCaprio episode reveals the fact that television news rewards seasoned journalists by giving them largely brainless jobs. DiCaprio isn't lowering the standards of television journalism; he's revealing that there are none.

Jonah Goldberg is editor for National Review Online. Comment by clicking here.


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