How objective must television drama or commentary be when a program deals with many-sided, emotional issues?
Is absolute balancing of different viewpoints on the same program necessary or desirable - supposing it is possible?Last week's NBC movie on abortion, "Roe vs. Wade," shows that these classic questions still raise a lot of rancor. The show told of the events behind the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, a ruling now being reconsidered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
-"ROE VS. WADE" focused on Norma McCorvey, called in the movie Ellen Russell, the real-life "Jane Roe" in whose behalf the landmark case was brought. Since its protagonist was a plucky and sympathetic young woman and the story was heart-tugging, it clearly favored the pro-choice stance, though many pro-life arguments were included.
I found the network bold in dealing with the subject and in taking this tack, particularly since it faced an advertiser boycott. Some critics found it timid, because the show was one of the most rigorously rewritten and censored of TV movies, having gone through four outlines and 19 script drafts. It eliminated all graphic references to self-abortion, for instance.
In any event, half an hour after the two-hour movie, NBC made an accommodation to more balance with a special on the abortion controversy. The program had clips from the show and a debate of sorts between pro-life and pro-choice leaders.
It was a more-heat-than-light debate, strident and acrimonious, with the principals often unwilling to let an opponent finish a sentence. It underscored the opening observation by Tom Brokaw, the moderator, that abortion, as a powerful issue involving morality and individual rights, had "no solution acceptable to everyone."
The director of American Victims of Abortion, the chief pro-life spokesman there, called the movie "two hours of pro-abortion propaganda." Brokaw denied that NBC had a "hidden agenda," however, saying the movie was an accurate story rather than something "pumped up" to make a case.
-BROKAW MIGHT ALSO have answered that while the movie made a point, it was based on consideration of many arguments. In choosing up sides, the network thus made a considered judgment.
Furthermore, and perhaps more important, the Founding Fathers and the courts presumed that the truth would emerge not from one voice but from a multitude of competing voices.
What the network has an obligation to do is to give reasonable opportunity for other sides to be heard, as it did in the debate and what it and other stations have done in allowing rebuttals to innumerable specials and documentaries.
Any interpretive work, whether drama or explanatory reporting, demands an attitude. Indecision and vagueness are chloroform to good writing and to good theater.
-WHEN LAST THIS COLUMN explored the issue of balance on abortion, in 1985, a "Cagney and Lacey" episode had just aroused a storm of protest from pro-lifers who said that its abortion theme failed to make some essential arguments against abortion. The pro-lifers demanded equal time from the network, even though the Fairness Doctrine then in effect did not require equal time, only overall balance in programming dealing with the same subject. One point made then was that if the networks had shown any tilt toward one side or another, it was toward the pro-lifers rather than the pro-choice group.
-ANOTHOR RECENT PROGRAM involving the balance question was an independently produced 90-minute documentary on the West Bank uprising called "Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians." It was to have been presented by New York's WNBC for the Public Broadcasting Service. But a station vice president canceled the show because she found it biased against the Israelis.
The cancellation incensed the syndicated columnist Anthony Lewis, a civil rights libertarian. He wrote that the idea that TV must show only balanced programs is a notion "deadly to freedom of expression," for the First Amendment was intended to protect "expression of strong views: one-sided, outrageous, whatever."
-THE SAME ISSUE arose in a little different context last fall when I complained that some of the Salt Lake media, including both dailies, were in danger of being perceived as unconscionably biased and losing credibility by donating money to defeat the tax initiatives. A leader of the group spearheading the opposition, attorney Pat Shea of KUTV, responded, like Lewis, that the constitution never intended a balancing of views.
He and I are really not so far apart. What I feared was the danger that people would believe a media cabal was rigging the debate on the initiatives. The framers of the Constitution believed in robust debate but presumed that it would come through a free press diverse enough to allow a multitude of views.
Furthermore, where news, rather than drama or what are clearly views, is being presented, today's media, so different from the partisan press of the late 1700s, do have the obligation to be as balanced, restrained and accurate as is humanly possible.