There is a six-letter word that television news cannot tolerate, even though it’s something that’s routinely used in the production of news programs. It forms a continuing thread in every news show on the air and is a fundamental part of the training of every onscreen journalist, and yet television reels in horror at the very mention of its name. Broadcasters would rather take a pay cut than admit their complicity in the growth of this dreadful contamination of the objective business of reporting. But this summer the beast came to haunt TV news in a series of neurotic outbursts that made headlines across the nation. The name of the beast is, of course, acting.

The presence of acting in TV news stretches back to the very beginnings of the format, and in the era of the $2 million anchorperson, it’s becoming increasingly important. What is Dan Rather doing with that paycheck if he isn’t a pretty good actor? The mixing of fact and fiction in TV news recalls the debates of the 1970s about the “docudrama” (Roots, Blind Ambition, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, etc) and concern about the legitimacy of reconstructing recent history through drama.

Currently the journo-panic is organized around the genre of “infotainment,” which inexplicably bled right into prime-time news in August, when ABC broadcast its notorious reenactment of the alleged spy Felix Bloch handing a briefcase to an alleged KGB agent in a reconstruction of some alleged CIA videotape. Adding further to the hysteria, the segment was broadcast in some markets with no caption identifying it as fiction. Coming hard on the heels of the dramatic reenactments of the Fox shows The Reporters and America’s Most Wanted, this network gaffe crystallized the threat to professionalism that TV journalists fear most of all–the possibility that overt staging of news events will lead viewers to question the truth of documentary images.

No sooner had ABC News apologized, groveled, and generally prostrated itself before public opinion (i.e., other journalists) than the outbreak of Acting began to spread to other news shows. This summer, one episode of NBC’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow offered a mixture of documentary and drama that included a tough, liberal account of the My Lai massacre, an impressively passionate use of drama investigating the plight of the severely handicapped, and gory reconstructions of violent crime that would not have looked out of place on a rabid Fox TV show. Where necessary, it reconstructed events using actors and employed cheesy electronic superimposition to place its anchors in fictionalized sets–thus confusing the relation between past and present and conflating drama and documentary images. More recently, a pseudo-controversy erupted over allegations that CBS News had faked documentary footage of the war in Afghanistan. But the story was broken by the New York Post, a newspaper owned not coincidentally by Rupert Murdoch, who also happens to own the Fox Network. CBS, which refuted the charges, does use dramatic reenactment in its new current-affairs show Saturday Night With Connie Chung. (Chung’s $1.6 million contract is again a clear indication that performing ability is already built into the economics and aesthetics of TV news.)

The media response to these transgressive trends was saturated with hypocrisy. And the response of TV critics was almost as laughable as the reactions of TV journalists themselves. Across the USA, television writers turned away temporarily from the arduous business of regurgitating press releases to pontificate on the betrayal of journalistic principle. Then the number crunchers joined in. “Americans Confused by Pseudo-News Shows on TV” announced the San Francisco Chronicle, picking up a Los Angeles Times story based on a Times Mirror survey. This questionable conclusion was drawn from empirical data suggesting that viewers (quite correctly) refuse to believe that “news” and “entertainment” programs are distinct entities. So where’s the confusion? Obviously it’s in the heads of media critics and highly interested commentators who are unable to comprehend the fact that the public no longer buys their self-serving professional rhetoric.

The TV critics, journalists, and network executives all seem to agree on the problem–the erosion of the viewers’ belief in what they see. But like all journalistic facts, that “problem” contains a judgment too. Has it not occurred to anyone that the development of audience skepticism might be a thoroughly good thing? Are we really supposed to believe that news with actors is any more “staged” than news without? Are we supposed not to know that news programs already employ scripts and actors (presenters) and often center on staged events known days, weeks, sometimes months ahead of time? Should we pretend not to notice that TV news continually poses the day’s events in terms of “stories” told as morality tales, which use recurring characters (politicians, celebs, monsters from various evil empires) structured around beginnings, middles, and endings that are as predictable as a fairy story?

Your average TV critic, apparently, hasn’t noticed any of these things. And your average TV journalist certainly doesn’t want us to. Hence the panic. But the overt staging of TV news must be seen as a marvelous development for those of us who already think that the truth rating of TV news lies somewhere between that of ALF and The Gong Show. It is the hidden manipulation of documentary images that is the problem, not the introduction of reenactment. Every time news and documentary acknowledge their use of fictional conventions they undermine their authority and free the viewer from the illusion of objectivity. Critics of television’s factual output (as opposed to ideologues working on behalf of Objective Journalism Inc.) should welcome the development of acting in TV news and look forward to the day when it introduces canned laughter.

Dramatic reconstructions certainly have a legitimate and long-established tradition, in both cinema and television, as a means of visualizing events that went unrecorded by the camera. But it is the compulsion to emphasize moving images of the “real” (as if that were all there is to show) that lies at the heart of this problem. And it has turned the networks into political suckers. Throughout the world, represssive governments now understand that the surest way to reduce TV coverage of political abuses is simply to limit access to interesting visuals.

It was the South African government that first exploited this tactic on a routine basis. (Previously the blunting of TV’s visual rhetoric was usually reserved for the censorship of wars–the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, the invasion of Grenada, etc.) Its massive press restrictions, introduced in 1985, represented a test case for TV’s ability to place news values over picture value. Predictably, TV failed. If there were no images of flaming vehicles, chanting protesters, or club-wielding policemen, then TV had nothing to show–ergo, nothing to say.

This fetishistic attitude toward the visual is rarely challenged (such is the power of “professionalism”), but in South Africa Now (Sundays at 10:30 AM on Channel 11) it is negotiated with great skill and with an intrepid sense of how to exploit TV news conventions even as the show smashes the frame of objectivity. Mixing news events, political commentary, and cultural coverage relating to southern Africa, this program is wily in its radicalism. The male presenters wear suits and ties. Interview set pieces are cut with visual wallpaper for illustration (and to hide the edits) in classic TV news style. The newsroom is a simple pastiche of network news presentation sets from the days before computer technology spliced TV journalism with the mise-en-scene of Star Wars. A superimposed inset almost parodies the use of photos and graphics in traditional TV news.

But this is no joke. The intent is clearly to deploy familiar conventions in order to cash in on their credibility. The intonation is cool and reasonable, but the script is militant. Namibia is referred to as “Africa’s last colony,” Bishop Desmond Tutu is praised for his “inspirational leadership,” the riots of South African youth are termed “defiance,” and the South African government is characterized as “brutal” in contrast with the “oppressed majority.” These are perfectly rational statements, and they read (to my eyes) as quite “objective” and certainly truthful. But the departure from the distanced, unengaged prose of network newsspeak is all too obvious.

For acting remains, in another sense (political, not thespian–as in activist, not actor) anathema to TV journalism. To act is not just to pretend, it is also to do something. The ideology of TV journalism, on the other hand, assumes that to know the truth we must only observe. It is the epistemology of the couch potato.

Along with the samples of TV news coverage from around the world featured on Cable News Network’s World Report, South Africa Now presents an alternative to “objective” (i.e. Yankocentric) TV news. Its value lies not only in the presentation of an alternative outlook, but also in its demonstration of an honestly engaged, committed, and politically motivated news program. For just as the use of actors shakes the foundations of network journalism, so the admission of a political viewpoint goes to the core of a broadcasting ideology that would like you to think that the nightly news drops from the hands of God straight into the lens of a passing TV camera.

Just why we should think of uncommitted, unconcerned, and uninvolved accounts of the world as more “truthful” than any others says a good deal about the secret politics of television. The distinctions made between news and comment, between facts and values, between documentary and drama, between observation and engagement, appear so “natural” to us that TV critics and opinion pollsters think that anyone who refuses them must be classified as “confused.” Every time these assumptions are corrupted, there is a media panic. Why? Because whether it comes in the form of a radical TV news show or a network snafu, a little part of the authority of His Majesty Objectivity has been chipped away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.