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NARCISSISTIC NETWORK NEWS NOT KEEPING UP WITH THE BEAT DONAHUE'S INFOTAINMENT SEEMS TO BE DOING A BETTER JOB THAN BIG-BUCKS ANCHOR TYPES

A WORST-CASE scenario: Say, God forbid, that something were to happen during President Bush's dreaded mid-February trip to the Colombia drug conference. There would be panic deep in the hearts of networks -- and not just because the fate of the West would be momentarily whistling through the desolate places inside the head of J. Danforth Quayle.

It would all be happening in the middle of the February Sweeps, the High Holy Days in the network ratings business. Great gobs of glitter and programming would have to be stuffed into cold storage while the network news boys commandeered prime time and attended to unfolding events. Programming and advertising types would wring their hands and fling themselves onto their Oriental carpets in despair. Their world would have turned upside-down.

Believe me, it would take something as drastic as presidential peril to upset prime-time equilibrium during the February Sweeps. Consider what it's going to take to get the McMartin preschool case on "60 Minutes."

A week from tonight, "60 Minutes" is scheduled to tackle the stunning acquittal in California's McMartin child molestation trial. It's going to take that long to get to it, despite all the things at issue in the McMartin case -- among them, the mind-boggling cost (it is sometimes accounted the costliest criminal trial in American history) and the inordinate legal difficulty of obtaining completely credible evidence from children about sexual abuse.

"60 Minutes" can't delve into any of that tonight for the most obvious reason: It won't be on. As everyone West of Cadiz knows, this is Super Bowl Sunday. And on Super Bowl Sunday the world stops dead; there is no news unless it happens between the goal posts of the Superdome in New Orleans.

News is a strange thing. The networks have it nicely compartmentalized into time zones. If only it were that simple.

Like babies in need of fresh diapers or cats yowling to go outside, breaking news often happens when it wants to happen. The world might have settled in with its beer and Doritos to watch a World Series game, but that didn't stop a major earthquake from cracking bridges and highways open and torching an entire district of San Francisco at that very moment.

In fact, it was the timing of the San Francisco quake as much as the severity of it that made it such big news. There are slow news days and fast news days. Even Johnny Carson watchers know that.

We are living in the middle of the fastest news months in years. What has happened on all news levels at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 has been incredible. The period we're living in was made for Ted Turner and his CNN.

On the highest level, monolithic communism died. And its afterlife in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and China has been wildly chaotic and dramatic. Most of all, it has been daily.

On a lower level, one American city (Washington, D.C.) was stunned when its mayor was videotaped by feds smoking crack, another (Boston) was ripped apart when a murder revealed a level of racial tension as high as (if not higher than) that of any other city in the country, and the outcome of the McMartin trial put all sorts of '80s notions into stark, dramatic silhouette.

And so far, network news departments seem unable to cope with it all. In theory, network news profiles have never been higher. ABC has "PrimeTime Live" and "2 0/2 0" on the prime-time schedule, and CBS has "60 Minutes," "48 Hours" and "Saturday Night With Connie Chung." Still, the gulf between the drama and significance of international and national events and TV news' handling of them has never seemed wider.

ABC News' "Nightline" is capable of lightning reaction time. But otherwise, network news seems to be slogging waist-deep through commerce, narcissism, arrogance, impotence and total inconsequentiality.

While they're doing all that, of course, salaries and ratings are better than ever. Never mind that Diane Sawyer's weekly check could provide a very comfortable living in Manhattan for four veteran commentators up to their bifocals in wit and insight.

The downfall of Eastern European communism seemed to turn into a long photo opportunity for Tom Brokaw (and then into a few TV commercials). The San Francisco earthquake became a photo op for Dan Rather. (There's nothing like a collapsed highway behind your head to give the world the image of being on top of things, by golly.)

Where are the long prime-time reports on any of this? No one is going to tell me that a squadron of crackerjack reporters and commentators at, say, NBC couldn't come up with an hour-long report on all the implications of Boston's Charles Stuart case that wouldn't get ratings at least as high as those of "Quantum Leap." So why not shove an episode of "Quantum Leap" into the deep freeze one week and give the news boys their head?

But then, one counterargument goes, is it really news that white, well-off Charles Stuart shot his pregnant wife in the head, blamed it on a black man and then killed himself when his brother spilled the beans? Or is it just tabloid sensationalism?

Granted, the murder-money-fraud-pregnancy angle is a TV movie of the week (stay tuned). But the case went beyond that into toxic urban levels of intolerance, ignorance and racial hostility. Some say they are endemic to Boston and make its mixture of Irish Catholics, WASP blue bloods and blacks more volatile and problematic than the ethnic mixture of any other Northeastern city.

While indentured network news seems paralyzed and immobile and egregiously overpaid a good part of the time, down there in the cellars of infotainment, the reflexes seem to be razor-sharp.

Phil Donahue, for one, dove right into the Stuart case one morning.

And in the middle of it, NBC News interrupted with a decidedly un-urgent report on the newest doings of the space shuttle.

Put that under a microscope and examine it closely. It's a microcosm of TV news' current malaise.

On one side you have an authorized news department mired in self-congratulation and a traditional and probably outdated reverence for space hardware; on the other side you have a man at the fount of the sleazy infotainment revolution, a man in the same business as Geraldo, for heaven's sake. Never mind that he and his panel are exploring a major news event of the day from all sorts of intelligent angles.

So here's the trouble we're all in at the moment, it seems to me: It's easier these days to get into development a docudrama on the day's news or to get Phil or Oprah on the air with the day's dramas than it is for TV network news to get off the dime.

Nature, said Spinoza, abhors a vacuum. As the '90s begin, it must despise network TV news.

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