This just in: TV news serves empty calories

Empty

Let the word travel far and wide that television news remains more of an oxymoron than ever. Katie Couric interviews Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and grills her about why she isn't married because, you know, it's a matter of national security. Rogue nations may well decide that, since we have a single Secretary of State, our shores are now vulnerable.

Then we have Diane Sawyer, who has something in common lately with Yankee Doodle. The latter stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. Last week, Sawyer stuck a finger in Mel Gibson's face and called it journalism. Both claims carry roughly the same credibility.

The way ABC hyped Sawyer's interview last week with Malibu Mel, you'd have thought it was the result of some grand courting and persistence rather than the shotgun marriage it so obviously was. "No questions were off-limits!" she proclaimed on "Good Morning America," where the pretaped sit-down ran Thursday and Friday because it was clearly so spectacular it could not be contained in a single show.

What emerged was a fascinating example of what happens when business interests and tabloid instincts collide head-on. Yes, this was Gibson's first interview since The Drunken Anti-Semitic Rant Heard 'Round the World, and as such it was a big deal for "GMA" to have the exclusive kickoff to "The Gibson Resurrection Tour." The cursory televised plea for forgiveness and compassion are now as much a part of the process as the celebrity sin itself.

But to pretend this was about being tough and holding Gibson's feet to the fire for his transgression was laughable, as disingenuous as was the interview subject's non-apology apology. The gist: when in doubt, blame alcohol.

Of course, this was never going to be about making Gibson squirm, unless he has a tendency to squirm while wrapped in a great big corporate group hug. Let's do the math, shall we? Gibson's next feature, the Mayan epic "Apocalypto," is being released in December by Touchstone Pictures. Touchstone is a division of the Walt Disney Co. So is ABC.

Since all who were present at this restorative fiasco masquerading as a heartfelt act of contrition happen to be in bed together, we might deduce that the higher-ups weren't about to allow Sawyer to play real hardball. Despite dropping Gibson's proposed Holocaust mini earmarked for ABC out of sheer PR necessity, Disney still has far too much invested in him to risk his looking bad.

So while much was made of Sawyer's supposed gloves-off approach to the interview, in fact it was the equivalent of a boxer making a great show of aggression while at the same time taking pains to pull his punches.

Conveniently, Sawyer asked nothing about the business dealings between Disney and Gibson's production company, nor did she so much as utter a full disclosure disclaimer. She inquired instead about the stuff she had to in order to convey the appearance of taking a hard line: the boozing, if he's really an anti-Semite, where this rage came from, what he's doing about his demons.

That Sawyer gave Gibson every opportunity to make himself look good is undeniable. But her subject emerged as decidedly less than a wholly sympathetic figure, offering hollow repentance and blaming the tequila without addressing any underlying cause. And when Gibson did give his interviewer an opening after indicating his hatespeak that night may have been spurred by lingering resentment over the "public beating" he took for "The Passion of the Christ," she neglected to follow up. No huge surprise there.

We also shouldn't have been surprised that a celebrity on trial in the court of public opinion would cast himself as the victim. Because in Hollywood, when the going gets tough, the tough get pointing.
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