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Seven Days of Dateline, Part One

Like a basket full of asps, a game of chicken with a speeding freight train or a serving of shrimp cocktail left out in the hot summer sun, first impressions can be deadly. You get one, maybe two chances to cement an image of yourself in people's minds, to give them a quick mental cheat sheet that they'll call upon every time your name gets mentioned. Make a favorable impression, and all that you desire can be yours -- incalculable riches, fine wines, sporty yet reliable ground transportation. Fail to win friends and influence people, and your world is about to get a lot crueler.

Dan Quayle can tell you all about that.

Back in the day -- the day, in this case, being about a decade or so ago -- Quayle served as our vice president, a gig that put him a plate of poorly refrigerated shrimp cocktail away from the presidency. That was just his day job, though. By night, Quayle served as a whipping boy, the punch line du jour for every two-bit stand-up comic, every would-be wag and the dozens and dozens of late-night talk show hosts produced by our nation's factories every week. Their wacky take? Vice President Quayle was something of a drip. A thick-headed rube who was D-U-M dumb. An ill-read, resume-padding dope who lucked into his position through birth and happenstance.

Why? Because Vice President Quayle was a thick-headed rube, or at least, our first impressions were that he was. He gave speeches littered with malaprops. He railed against the imagined inequities of sitcom characters. He was stumped by simple words in a third-grade spelling bee. Not the sharpest Ginsu in the set.

Then again, a lot of politicians aren't particularly bright, as anyone who's spent more than five minutes watching C-SPAN will tell you. Al Gore says dopey things. Maxine Waters can't string two sentences together without sounding deeply out of her league. And have you ever tried making heads or tails out of what Trent Lott's mumbling about? How come these guys and the dozens upon dozens like them make out OK while poor Dan Quayle is held up to scorn and ridicule?

It helps that Gore, Waters, Lott and the rest have never been caught on tape getting outwitted by nine-year-olds.

First impressions are like that -- cruel and permanent. Dan Quayle could disappear from the face of the earth and then re-emerge years later with a cancer cure, a Mid-East peace plan and a foolproof way to lose weight without giving up chocolate. And you know what the papers will say?

Promises To Tackle Poverty Next, Forgets To Zip Up Fly

Sure, it's not fair. But very little about first impressions are. Try as he might, Dan Quayle will always be regarded as a half-wit. No matter what role he plays, Neil Patrick Harris will always be our Doogie. Madonna can have all the kids she wants and get cast against type from now until doomsday -- she'll always be the carefully marketed whore who first shimmied her way into our hearts.

And Dateline NBC will always be the show that rigged up a truck to explode like a county fair fireworks display.

It's been eight years since Dateline NBC debuted. Eight years since producers made the fateful decision to strap a couple sticks of dynamite to the bottom of a GM truck so they could dramatize the deadly fireball that very possibly could result if you drove such a truck and if NBC interns were hiding in your garage with a sack full of C4 and orders to blow things up real good.

We've gone through a record economic expansion since then. We've elected a president... twice. NBC's fortunes have gone from crummy to stellar and back to crummy again. And Dateline NBC is now the most watched news program in the country, by virtue of the fact that the Peacock Network broadcasts it almost continually from dusk 'til dawn.

Yet, mention Dateline NBC to the man on the street, and it will take all of 30 seconds before someone starts cracking wise about wiring Stone Phillips with a megaton of TNT.

Those damned first impressions again. Cruel. Cutting. Lasting.

Sure, it's easy to make fun of Dateline NBC and the way it's spread across NBC's schedule like a metastasized tumor. It's easy to drone on and on about Dateline Monday and Dateline Tuesday and Classic Dateline and Cherry-Flavored Dateline. It's oh-so-easy to joke about how they're going to have to keep dosing Stone Phillips with high-grade amphetamines just to keep him from collapsing from exhaustion on-air. And it would be very easy to make fun of Dateline's checkered past: "Coming up next: A single mother fights for custody of her only child... after we blow the other kids up!"

It's really easy, as a matter of fact. It took me less than a minute to type that paragraph.

But while anyone can make fun of Dateline and its antipathy toward quaint notions like "journalistic integrity" and "substance over style," I'm willing to bet that few of you wisecrackers out there have ever sat down and given Dateline a chance. Oh, maybe you saw Dateline's Question of the Week segment while you were waiting for Law & Order to come on. Or maybe you caught a fleeting glimpse of the Dateline Time Capsule in those heady minutes before West Wing. Or maybe you've seen Dateline blow up an automobile. I don't know.

But have you ever taken the time to watch nearly a week's worth of Dateline NBC? Have you taken a break from your busy schedule of mockery and derision to study the Dateline oeuvre in depth, to stick your mitts in the very pith and marrow of NBC's ubiquitous prime-time newsmagazine. Have you ever asked yourself, "Hey, what makes Stone Phillips tick?" or "What drives Jane Pauley to do what she does?" or even "What's the deal with Maria Shriver's jawbone? Is she one of those replicants from a future time and place?"

Well, no need to bother, sport. I just spent a week learning all that I can about Dateline and its special brand of reportage. And let me tell you, I think we all owe the good men and women of Dateline an apology for our cruel and arbitrary first impressions.


I wasn't sure what to expect as I began my week-long odyssey into the wilds of Dateline. Like so many others, I had taken my shots at the Dateline crowd. I had enjoyed more than a few unkind chuckles at the expense of Stone Phillips, his choice in suits, even his hairdo. But now, with nothing but Dateline to sate my thirst for news, would the tables be turned? What affect would my first full exposure of Dateline have on my cynical, jaded nature?

Like a sucker punch straight to the gut, as it turns out. From the moment Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley welcomed me to their New York studio, Dateline NBC had its hooks in me with a story that must have hit home with every viewer tuned in that night.

It seems that a Marine Staff Sergeant, stationed in Japan, was accused of sexually assaulting the daughter of a fellow Marine. Despite the accusation, the Marine Corps takes no action against the Staff Sergeant, instead transferring him to Arizona. Once there, he again faced allegations of drugging and raping the daughter of another Marine, and this time, it looked as if the Staff Sergeant was going to trial -- until he turned up charred to a crisp in the Las Vegas desert. Or did he? Years later, a man arrested in Utah for alleged sexual assault matched the description of the dead Staff Sergeant. Turns out he faked his own death -- with the unwitting help of a drifter whose body he set on fire -- to avoid a trial. And it seemed like justice had finally caught up with our villainous Staff Sergeant... until he hung himself in his jail cell, thus bringing our Dateline NBC story to a close.

Indeed, a story that rings true for the millions of us who've ever felt the scourge of renegade Marine Staff Sergeants who prey on society's innocents.

You would think that a story like that would tell itself. That all Dateline NBC would have to do is unleash leathery reporter Keith Morrison on the scene to ferret out the truth, with piercing, well-researched questions like "What was it like when your daughter told you she had been raped?" before throwing it back to Stone in the studio for a pithy wrap-up.

You would be wrong. Because the special touch of Dateline NBC -- indeed, part of the show's very genius -- comes when it adds stirring sound effects and visual tricks. Keith Morrison reports that the Staff Sergeant has drugged a victim? The camera gets all blurry and starts to lurch down a hallway. The Staff Sergeant is finally arrested? We're treated to stock footage of a prison door slamming shut with a reverberating clang. It's dramatic touches like these, I've discovered, that make a Dateline NBC story as gripping as anything on, say, Law & Order or Law & Order: SVU. Only here, the stories are true. Mostly. Hopefully.

Only one thing troubled me, as I sat there riveted to my TV following the twists and turns of this precedent-setting criminal case. A few years ago -- 1998 I want to say -- I visited my fellow Vidiot, Pete Ko, at his palatial Las Vegas estate. And I remembering reading the Las Vegas Review-Journal -- a fine news source, though nothing compared to Dateline NBC -- and coming across this very story.

It seemed odd that Dateline NBC would breathlessly report a story I had read about at least two years ago as if it were still unfolding. That's not the kind of broadcast journalism I associate with the Dateline imprimatur, with the icy, cool professionals of Keith Morrison, with the awesome news-gathering abilities of Stone Phillips.

Then it hit me. Dateline NBC has a large chunk of programming to fill up each week. Finding enough top-shelf material for five nights of Dateline is hard, labor-intensive work. Every now and again, even a story as important as the Marine Staff Sergeant who faked his own death will slip through the cracks.

Plus, it takes a long time to add all that stock footage.


With my newfound appreciation for Dateline in place, I couldn't wait for Tuesday night's installment. What important pieces of investigative journalism would Stone and the boys be able to cook up in a scant 24 hours for me and the rest of the massive Dateline audience? A piece on some sort of sordid crime? A feature on a revolutionary weight-loss program? An exposé on a revolutionary weight-loss program that led to some sort of sordid crime?

Something a lot more hard-hitting, as it turns out. Dateline served up an alarming investigative report on a young lad who went to the doctor's office for a normal outpatient surgical procedure and left as a corpse when the anesthesia failed to agree with him.

"What you may not know," the Dateline correspondent intoned in his most grave baritone, "is that in most states, there are no laws that require doctors' offices to have the same safety procedures as hospitals."

Good God. If the newshounds at Dateline NBC are correct -- and apart from that exploding truck thing, they've given me no reason to doubt their trustworthiness as journalists -- then I'm playing with fire the next time I go in for a routine outpatient procedure at a doctor's office that happens to be in one of those states with lax safety requirements.

Sweet Mother Mary in heaven, no!

My interest piqued, I was all set to pay extra special attention to this life-saving report. Indeed, Dateline promised to spell out exactly what I needed to look out for the next time I went under the knife, lest I wind up another statistic in the TV newsmagazine's grisly parade of death.

Only it was right then that the girlfriend demanded I turn off the TV and pay attention to her.

Oh, I protested. I tried pointing out that here was news we could use. I even made a mental note to keep a close eye on the girlfriend from now on. She starts urging me to go in to the doctor's to get that mole removed, and I know she's trouble.

Still, I turned off the TV. She's awfully pretty.

To be continued...


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