SOLOMON: O.J. Coverage Rescues Nation From TV Pundits
America's broadcasters did a fine job of satirizing themselves the other night. There was just one problem: They were dead serious.What began as State of the Union coverage became an unfunny spoof about the State of TV News. On stations across the country, frenetic O.J. mania displaced oily political platitudes. What a choice.It may be fashionable to chastise television for going tabloid. But when you come right down to it, less air time for present-day punditry is no great loss. If not for the Simpson verdict, we would have heard more from the likes of ABC's new commentator, George Stephanopoulos, who lavished unctuous praise on his former boss as Bill Clinton headed toward the podium. An hour later, when Clinton stepped away from the TelePrompTers, the primed pundits must have been very disappointed. Their post-speech roles vanished as TV programmers switched to full-screen coverage of the Simpson verdict. Excited discourse about such matters as Bruno Magli shoes and the monetary woes of O.J. Simpson supplanted discussion of presidential plans for the federal budget. Even on highbrow PBS, anchor Jim Lehrer couldn't wait for the president to leave the House chamber before reporting on the Simpson verdict. To its dubious credit, PBS quickly returned to the more elevated task at hand -- showing a pair of glib cheerleaders go head over heels for the major parties. Mark Shields lauded Clinton's speech as superb. After the Republican response from Rep. J.C. Watts, it was Paul Gigot's turn to pick up the pompoms and jump for joy.Missing from PBS and the other TV networks was any view of the State of the Union from outside the "Republicrat" box -- which has never been more narrow or confining. That just about sums up the State of the Media, 1997.The same two-party constriction that grips the nation's capital also has a firm hold on the nation's TV studios. Despite massive public dissatisfaction with both parties, it doesn't seem to have dawned on big-time producers that there should be more to political journalism than Democrats and Republicans talking about themselves and each other.Even if the Simpson jury had never rendered a verdict, the national TV audience would scarcely have been more enlightened. After Clinton issued his "call to action for American education," it was media business as usual. Not a single tough critic was on the air to point out that the most powerful institution of American education -- television -- is constantly promoting all kinds of destructive values for young people in order to reap maximum profits.When the president laid out his scenario for the federal budget, no TV network found anyone inclined to suggest very different priorities -- like putting the interests of working families ahead of the interests of large corporations. Clinton voiced determination to "harness the forces of technology" and dubbed the Internet "our new town square." Afterward, no TV commentator mentioned the schlocky commercial uses that already dominate cyberspace. (The next morning, in the "new town square," America Online was providing its "Top News Story" to millions of subscribers: "Simpson Faces Financial Ruin After Verdict.")When Clinton spoke of efforts "to finally end the threat of AIDS," cameras took the scripted cue and focused on a beaming, clapping Donna Shalala -- the secretary of Health and Human Services who has done little to push for high-profile AIDS prevention programs. In such ways, network television excels at telling lies that are subtle yet profound. "In the last four years," Clinton boasted, "we have increased child support collections by 50 percent." Always pleased to vilify the easy target of deadbeat dads, Clinton has done more than any president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a federal bureaucracy shirking its obligations to poor children. But Clinton had no need to worry that a TV pundit might accuse him of turning Uncle Sam into a deadbeat government. When the TV screens switched from Capitol Hill to Santa Monica, we didn't miss much. By now, we've seen the state of the media -- and it's quite grim.