Now that ABC’s Nightline is up for either cancellation or massive overhaul, its endangered anchor Ted Koppel seems to be taking the tack proposed a couple of months ago by new CNN head Jon Klein: It’s all about the storytelling. This week, on Wednesday and Thursday night, Nightline ran a two-part story titled “Art Meets Life: Don Cheadle’s Mission of Mercy.” The piece followed Cheadle and the man he plays in Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, as they joined a congressional mission to tour refugee camps in Western Darfur. (To read Cheadle’s “reporter’s notebook” on the journey, click here.)
Now, Don Cheadle is a wonderful actor, and he gives a masterful performance in Hotel Rwanda. The fact that the experience of making that film inspired him to use his fame to draw attention to the catastrophe in Darfur is commendable, and the larger point of the Nightline story— that the refusal of the United Nations to intervene in the Sudanese genocide is a sign that we’ve learned nothing from Rwanda— seems, sadly, right on the money. But good intentions and moral outrage don’t make Cheadle a journalist. Koppel introduced the actor as “Don Cheadle, who reported and narrates the story for us …” But Cheadle wasn’t reporting Wednesday’s dispatch from the refugee camps at Darfur— he was hosting it, providing a spoken commentary and a likable, recognizable face to some unseen news producer’s take on the congressional mission to Sudan. The distinction seems important in a world where journalism is fast becoming a cult of personality.
What exactly is the difference between reporting and hosting TV news? Leaving aside the question of how many decisions about subject matter, camera placement, and script were left up to Don Cheadle, let’s work backward from the finished product. Though he cited many (horrifying) statistics about displacement and death in Darfur, what was most striking was how often Cheadle’s voiceover tended to focus on his own emotional experience as he toured the camps: “I looked into their eyes and tried to imagine what they had seen and felt. … It’s unimaginable. I just felt very small in a way, and insignificant and humbled.” Toward the end of the half-hour, addressing the camera directly in a one-on-one sit-down interview about his personal impressions of the trip (again, not something a news reporter spends a lot of time doing), Cheadle turned Nightline into a kind of telethon as he appealed to viewers’ sense of guilt: “How can I really combat all this unless I spend every dime I have and somehow impress upon every human being I know to chip in?” Good question. But in that case, why not make Cheadle the host of a prime-time telethon on ABC to raise money for Sudanese refugees? He could while away the hours with his spot-on Sammy Davis, Jr. impression. Just don’t send him to Africa with a press pass in his cap.
Throughout the two-part broadcast, Nightline seemed to want to have its cake and eat it too. Ted Koppel implicitly chided his viewers for ignoring the Rwandan genocide until it went Hollywood, saying, “The great irony is that the genocide in Rwanda is suddenly receiving a great deal of attention because of a film.” But Koppel’s own show was relying on Hollywood star power to draw in those same viewers.
Once again, I applaud Don Cheadle’s desire to draw more attention to an event as horrific as the one that, in his own words, he “fictitiously went through for the last year.” But when it comes to Nightline’s journalistic probity in choosing to cast Cheadle as a fictitious reporter, I’m less than impressed. … 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2005
Now that the administration’s 2006 budget has been released, proposing a $45 billion cut in Medicaid spending over the next 10 years, financially disadvantaged Americans are going to have to get their health care somewhere, right? I mean, we can’t just allow people to die because they’re poor, right? Right?
OK, scratch that. But for the fortunate and telegenic few, there may yet be hope. The New York Times business section reported yesterday that a proposed new ABC reality show, Miracle Workers, will feature a team of doctors who “scour the country seeking people who urgently need medical care but do not have the wherewithal to obtain it.” (That’ll be some pretty easy scouring, given that approximately 45 million Americans—around one in every six people—are currently living without health insurance.)
ABC has already scored big in the ratings with the fix-it franchise of Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. If Miracle Workers takes off, it’ll be sort of like Extreme Makeover: Critical Condition Edition. But the heart-tugging logic of the Home Edition show, in which particularly “deserving” families—those with sick children, say, or those who have recently lost one or both parents—are awarded the gift of a newly constructed house, takes on a newly creepy cast when imagined in the context of health care. Will the team of physicians really have to weigh the relative need of various candidates for treatment? What does it mean to “deserve” medical help? What will be the criteria for appearing on the show: Curability? Sexiness? Number and cuteness of offspring? And what will happen to the also-rans along the way—do they get a case of aspirin as a consolation prize?
Miracle Workers probably isn’t the most tasteless reality show ever imagined—the Brits still have us beat in that department, with upcoming series slated that reproduce the conditions of torture at Guantanamo or track the decomposition of a still-to-be-chosen volunteer corpse. But it’s hard to imagine a more cynical concept than monetizing the glaring deficits of the American health care system through a weekly dose of feel-good sentimentality. At least if Miracle Workers offers the opportunities for product placement that Sears has found in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, some pharmaceutical firms can look forward to a real-life marketing miracle. … 11:08 a.m.