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Seven Days of Dateline, Part Two

Good evening from New York. I'm Stone Phillips.

Previously on Dateline, Chief Vidiot Correspondent Philip Michaels had vowed to spend an entire week watching nothing but Dateline NBC episodes. After a rather lengthy intro about Dan Quayle that none of us really understood, Philip watched his first Dateline episode, a two-year-old piece about a Marine Staff Sergeant accused of a lurid crime. He was all set to watch Dateline's Tuesday installment when his girlfriend -- a lovely yet sinister woman -- demanded they watch something else.

Now, as our story continues, Philip is about to watch his third consecutive night of Dateline NBC. Philip?

Thanks, Stone.


I made sure the girlfriend was safely contained for Wednesday's installment of Dateline. No way she was going to keep me from sampling its nuggets of newsy goodness two nights in a row. And boy, was I glad that I took my phone off the hook, dimmed my apartment lights, and failed to heed repeated knocking on my door. Dateline NBC was just too powerful to miss.

We started off with a segment on a single mother, who was kidnapped by her deadbeat ex-husband and stuffed in the trunk of her own late-model sedan. Only her quick-thinking ingenuity and familiarity with the inner workings of her car allowed her to escape to freedom, some two state lines after her abduction. Then we were treated to a segment on a new DNA technique that helped nab a serial rapist in Louisiana -- but only after the mood-setting bayou music and interviews with several victims recounting each lurid yet apparently indispensable detail of their rapes. Finally, Dateline teamed up with People magazine to deliver a hard-hitting piece on Whitney Houston and the media that hound her.

The power of Dateline NBC and People magazine in one place? Look out, 60 Minutes!

It was on Wednesday night that I noticed another Dateline masterstroke -- reporting on stories with clear villains and distinct heroes. The single-mother who single-handedly freed herself from the trunk of a sedan? Hero. The stringy-haired deadbeat who shoved her in the trunk in the first place? Villain. The police detective who caught the serial rapist in bayou-music-lovin' Louisiana? He-ro! The serial rapist himself? Villain. Big time.

If only every news outlet could take this approach. It would make normally dull stories ever so much interesting. Imagine a piece on banking reform that didn't time examining the minutiae of Depression-era finance laws but instead focused on a sinister banker who foreclosed on widows and cackled a lot and the heroic federal regulator who takes him down. Or a piece on a civil war in a far-off land that eschewed the centuries-old slights and offenses that caused the dispute in favor of a knock-down drag-out interview with the rebel leader in which he promised to "bring the paaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiin!"

It works for pro wrestling. And it works for Dateline.

It's not enough that Dateline redefines the way we digest news; the program also gives a voice to the disenfranchised man on the street with its gripping "Question of the Week" feature. On this evening, the question focused on taxes. Dateline wanted to know if "the right amount, too much or too little." An astonishing 58% said they paid too much. Nobody said they paid too little.

Do you hear that, Washington fat cats? Do something about those taxes! People are paying too much! Dateline has spoken!


No Dateline tonight. I came home, jonesing hard for my almost daily dose of Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley and their take-no-prisoners approach to bringing me the news. I turned on the TV, sat back on the couch and readied myself to be made smarter.

And all I saw was snow. The cable was out.

Bastards! Filthy, devil-worshipping bastards!

I spent the rest of the evening, drafting a letter to the cable company bastards, the snow on my TV where Dateline should be serving as background noise. I let them know about the horrible bind they've put me in, depriving me not only of the source material for my highly scientific study of Dateline but also the most watched newsmagazine in America. I implied that it was not in their best interest to trifle with Dateline -- Stone Phillips knows his way around explosives, if you catch my drift. And as I ended the letter demanding satisfaction for the wrong I had suffered, I secretly vowed to make the cable company dogs pay.

I wonder if they're in league with the girlfriend.


By driving down to the cable company to deliver my grievances in person -- and after a brief parley with the police in which I promised to never do that again -- I ensured that Dateline would flow unfettered into my living room Sunday night. And boy, was I happy I did. You talk all you want to about Easter Sunday or Super Bowl Sunday or even "Sunday in the Park With George." But for my money, they all wither up and die in the awesome presence of Dateline Sunday.

The show featured a report on a story that's received far too little media attention -- the case of a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez that seems to have worked Miami's Cuban community into a fine pique. Dateline's chief medical correspondent Bob Arnot -- apparently the mighty commander in Dateline's army of medical reporters -- tracked down a Yale psychiatrist to help us tap into little Elian's brain. And even though the psychiatrist had never met little Elian and could only base his diagnosis on what he had seen in the media, he was able to give a full account of the Cuban boy's psychological state.

I had no idea medical science had advanced so far that doctors no longer even had to meet their patients. But I'm grateful that Dateline NBC brought this new, streamlined form of medical care to my attention. The next time I'm due for a physical, I plan to ask my doctor if we can just do it over the phone. That will save me hours out of my busy schedule -- hours that I can then spend watching Dateline and learning more about this world and its wonderful scientific marvels.

The Yale psychiatrist's diagnosis, by the way, was that all this media hullabaloo was harmful to the delicate psyche of little Elian. Dateline followed that story with a second segment focusing on Elian Gonzalez.

"To keep up with the latest on Elian, stay with NBC and your local NBC stations," warned Maria Shriver, herself an example of our world's many scientific marvels.

Dateline's next story focused on Richard Roundtree -- "Shaft" of the Silver Screen -- and his battle with breast cancer.

I know some of you readers probably read that last sentence and had yourself an immature chuckle at Shaft's expense. You're making your "Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine with a the chicks?" cracks and hooting and hollering and just generally making a ass of yourself.

Well, stop it. This is a serious matter. One out of every 100 cases of breast cancer occurs in men. In fact, 1,400 breast cancer cases will be diagnosed in men this year.

Those are frightening numbers. But the severity of the problem really never hit home with me until I learned that it happened to a celebrity.

So thank you, Dateline NBC -- and your partner in reportage, People magazine. While others would cast a blind eye to celebrities and the diseases that afflict them, you're there with a camera crew, ready to film every emotional second of the interview. And I think I speak for all of America when I say we need more stories on celebrities and their problems and hopes and thoughts on vital issues of the day. Tell me which member of the Friends cast battles psoriasis. That guy on JAG -- does he have any diseases I should know about? And David Hyde Pierce: What does he make of this Elian business?

Dateline closed with another report from Bob Arnot -- the hardest working man in TV journalism -- who took time off of pestering Yale psychiatrists about little Elian's fragile state of mind to file a report on flexible endoscopes. They're medical marvels, those endoscopes, but it seems there's a problem keeping them sterile. In fact, there's a one in 2 million risk that the next time you go in for a procedure involving an endoscope, you could get a nasty infection.

I'm sure endoscope infections are a serious problem, but Bob Arnot's story really failed to hit home with me. Maybe if they would have focused on a celebrity who was treated with an tainted endoscope. Or a little Cuban boy.

Now, that's journalism Dateline-style!


Having spent just a week basking in the warm, newsy glow of Dateline, I have to tell you, I'm hooked. In fact, Monday morning, I cancelled my subscriptions to the local newspaper as well as the half-dozen magazines I get each month. I dropped the various news headlines Web sites I have bookmarked on my browser. And I cleared all the news radio stations from my pre-programmed stereo dial. From now on, Dateline is my only source of news. All those other things were just background noise, cluttering my brain.

Why? Because just one week of Dateline has taught me so much about the world I live in. In just the past seven days alone, I've learned:

  • Single mothers are being stuffed in car trunks by their estranged husbands at an alarming rate.

  • Sound effects and stock footage add sizzle to even the stalest news stories!

  • The greatest threats facing the commonweal are apparently unsafe practices in outpatient procedures, filthy endoscopes and Marine Staff Sergeants.

  • There's no new story so perfect that it can stand to have a few lurid sex details thrown in.

  • The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world... especially when there's a Cuban kid on the loose in Miami.

  • A disease becomes all the more poignant and virulent when it affects a famous person.

  • That Maria Shriver is one freaky looking broad.

Could I have functioned in our society without this information? Maybe. But does the fact that I now know it make a better person? Definitely. Certainly better than you, you non-Dateline watching philistine. What'd Stone Phillips ever do to you to turn you against him, huh? What, are you too good for Dateline? Huh? Huh?

Sorry. Got a little carried away there.

Poll after poll indicates that few people trust or even like the media. Maybe those same people who hate the media with every fiber of their being just need to sit down for an evening or two -- or five! -- of Dateline. And then they'll see old-fashioned journalism and newfangled Hollywood razzle-dazzle all mixed together in a pleasing hour of infotainment.

I'm hopeful that other networks will follow Dateline's lead. Already, ABC has 20/20 on a couple nights a week in the time slots not already taken up by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. And CBS... well, the network is still stuck in its 60 Minutes rut. But maybe one day, CBS will see the error of its ways and bring back the silky smooth tone of West 57th, the Dateline-esque news program that short-sighted suits sent off to the cornfield a decade ago.

In fact, I hope that NBC scraps its entire lineup -- Friends, ER, the whole ball of wax -- and goes all-Dateline all-the-time. Face it, Dateline NBC packs a bigger dramatic wallop than The West Wing, offers more drama than Law & Order and features a kookier cast of characters than Will & Grace. I'm not ashamed to say it -- Dateline NBC is better than all the sitcoms and the dramas on the Peacock Network combined; it's the best fictional program on NBC.

And I think that says it all.


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