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'Lights, Camera Politics!': a print man looks at TV's impact

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"Television technology has already shattered the US political party system," according to political analyst Richard Reeves, "and it will eventually shatter our government system, too."

On the telephone from his vacation hideaway on Shelter Island, N.Y., where he has retreated after completing the ABC News Close-up "Lights, Cameras . . . Politics" (Friday, July 11, 8-9 p.m., check local listings), the exhausted Mr. Reeves marvels at the enormous amount of time and effort TV journalists have to put into their work.

He functioned as correspondent-writer on the documentary, produced by Ann Black and Tom Priestly under the innovative aegis of senior producer Richard Richter and executive producer Pamela Hill.

"What television does," Mr. Reeves says, "is change what people know and when they know it. And in a peculiarly American way, almost all of TV's technology is owned by three corporations who use it for their own purpose.

"Candidates used to be chosen and elections planned by politicians in smoke-filled rooms, but today the campaigns are plotted by media experts and political events are planned to conform to television news schedules. Television exposure is the candidates' major goal. . . ."

"Lights, Cameras . . . Politics" (based on a rough cut I previewed while Mr. Reeves was completing the show and a more or less complete transcript) is a gnawingly fascinating, ultimately disturbing study of American political practices and their metamorphosis into a second- rate TV sitcom. Mr. Reeves provides historical perspective and caustically acute observations from his perch as a political observer for the print medium.

This timely documentary entertains as it enlightens. There are old clips of FDR and other master politicians plying their trade in the old-fashioned manner, on radio and in movie newsreels. For those who have forgotten too soon, there are clips from the original Richard M. Nixon "Checkers" speech, which proved early in the political game that the TV cameras can be used for one's own purposes.

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