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Jewish World Review June 17, 2003 / 17 Sivan, 5763

Roger Simon

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If a tree falls in the forest and I hear it, but it doesn't get on TV, did it really make a sound?

Note to Readers: This column first appeared as the presidential campaign of 1988 was gearing up, just as the presidential campaign of 2004 is gearing up now. The phenomenon Roger writes about -- reporters flying hundreds of miles to watch events on TV -- has now become standard practice. | HOUSTON We were invited. It's just that we were not allowed to attend.

The invitation to the press had been straightforward: The first debate among the Democratic presidential contenders would be held in July in Houston.

The format would be a two-hour version of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line," and it would be broadcast live from the fabulous 2,000-seat Brown Theater in the super-fabulous $72 million Gus Wortham Center.

Each candidate was given 130 tickets to hand out to supporters, with the remaining seats going to dignitaries and the corporate underwriters of the show.

There were no seats for the press. The press was invited to Houston. But the reporters could not get into the theater. They could not view the debate in the flesh. "Reporters will have access to a press area set up at the Wortham in order to cover 'Firing Line', " the invitation said. "Arrangements are being made for TV monitors and access to telephone hook-ups."

The press area turned out to be two rooms in the basement. But when I got to Houston, I told the press coordinator that the whole idea struck me as a little odd: Scores of reporters had flown hundreds of miles to watch an event on TV.

What's more, we could have watched exactly the same event at exactly the same time on our TVs at home, or on the TVs that are in every newspaper city room. And some reporters who flew to Houston decided that as long as they couldn't watch the event live, they might as well watch it from their hotel rooms, which had the advantage of room service.

Why did we come at all? Well, the press is supposed to go out and cover things. And if we watched from our homes, we wouldn't be allowed to put a "Houston" dateline on our stories.

Besides, on every paper there are differing versions of the same story. When I was a cub reporter, I heard the tale of the reporter following Robert Kennedy who turned in early one night and skipped his little victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. When the frantic call from his city desk awakened him, all he could say was, "Sirhan who?"

So we all flew to Houston. Where it was revealed in whispered tones that a few seats were available for the press, after all. But, as the hour for the debate drew closer, even more press seats became available.

But few reporters bothered. It was easier to take notes and type and file in the press rooms. And, besides, why not see the event the way the rest of America was seeing the event: on television.

By now, we all know that you get different impressions from watching an event in person and watching it on TV.

Reporters who attended the first debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy at WBBM-TV studios in Chicago thought Nixon had done rather well. Nixon's deathly pallor and sweaty upper-lip were evident to the audience at home, but not the reporters in the room.

So there were two separate "realities" to the event. The reality of what took place in a small room in front of a handful of reporters. And the reality of what most voters saw. Which reality was more important to 1960 election? Just ask Richard Nixon. Me, I went into the theater. Were my impressions any different from those who watched it on the tube? Just slightly.

On TV, Bruce Babbitt apparently looks just like Tom Poston. In the flesh, however, he doesn't look much goofier than the rest of the pack.

And at the end of the debate, I saw a floor director motion off-camera to Jesse Jackson that he could not deliver his closing remarks facing the audience from a sitting position as Albert Gore had just done. The camera could not pick him up. So as Gore finished, the floor director motioned Jackson to stand, which he did. On TV, it looked like a dramatic gesture, pure Jesse, designed to set him apart from the crowd. In fact, he was just following orders.

On this occasion, the differences between seeing it on TV and in person were not huge. But the separation of press and event is growing more popular.

To planners, it is a boon. By keeping the press out, you free up seats for "real" people. Besides, the press just sits there, trading wisecracks and not applauding, anyway.

Reporters used to be watchers of events, and now we are watchers of events on TV. It is becoming an in vitro campaign, a campaign within the glass of the TV tube.

But I wonder: If a tree falls in the forest and I hear it, but it doesn't get on TV, did it really make a sound?

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