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Columnist uses TV to find anti-U.S. roots

Thursday, March 20, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, frequently published on the Post-Gazette's op-ed pages, takes his reporting to television next week with a Discovery Channel special titled "Searching for the Roots of 9/11" (10 p.m. Wednesday).

As a person who tends to see both sides in many political debates and gets turned off by blind, hateful partisanship, I find Friedman's world view refreshing. He expresses his opinion, but not in a knee-jerk, overly partisan way. Even when he takes a side, he manages to remain pleasant and thoughtful.

At a Hollywood press conference in January, Friedman appeared via satellite from Cairo, Egypt, to discuss his first foray into television. Even then he knew an American invasion of Iraq was possible, but he said he didn't think world events would damage the relevance of his first documentary.

"This is something that will have lasting value and help people understand the Middle East," Friedman said. "[It's about] how we need to relate to that part of the world, no matter what's happening."

In tracing the roots of anti-American sentiment that fueled the Sept. 11 terrorists, Friedman set out to interview people from every walk of life.

"We don't interview, actually, any radicals," Friedman said. "The whole thing is focused on the opinions of normal people -- professors, business people, students -- because to me, that's where the story is, that's where the problem is."

Friedman said there are things both Westerners and the Arab and Muslim world need to do to get along better. He thinks the United States needs to be a better global citizen.

"If we come to the world and say, 'Look, boys and girls, there's a war on terrorism on now, and you're either with us or against us,' but in the war against global warming, say, 'Sorry, not with you -- gonna drive my Humvee,' that just really doesn't cut it."

Along the same lines, he suggested America needs to talk to the world without snarling, that the world is willing to listen, but we need to modulate our tone.

"American optimism is something the world makes fun of, but it's something the world deeply, deeply envies," Friedman said. "People need American optimism. They envy it. These are often very cynical societies that really wish they could have that kind of optimism. We can't lose sight of that."

Friedman said cynicism has been bred by repression and leaders who misgovern their countries. But he sees hopeful signs of change. In one segment of the program, Friedman will travel to the smallest Arab country, Bahrain, which has held a free parliamentary election and has an independent newspaper free from government censorship.

"The basic thesis of this documentary is that the people who perpetrated 9/11, the 19 hijackers, were a cult," Friedman said. "If you want to understand them, study Charles Manson, Jim Jones or people who bomb abortion clinics in the States, 'cause I believe this kind of aberrant behavior really could only have been carried out by a cult-like group."

Friedman wonders why the hijackers had so much support in the Arab Muslim world "by people who never would have killed a soul." He seeks answers in "Searching for the Roots of 9/11."

'Spot' on?

The WB network takes a radical stab at reviving TV comedy with the new hybrid "On the Spot" (9:30 tonight).

"On the Spot" merges the spontaneity of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" with the setting of "Fawlty Towers."

Each episode of "On the Spot" is partially scripted, but dialogue suggestions also come from the studio audience. When a bell rings in the middle of a scene, actors have to go back to their last line of dialogue and, on the spot, come up with a new line.

"You can count on me, sir, or I'm not Jeff Miller!" says the new hotel manager played by Jeff B. Davis. Then the bell rings. "You can count on me, sir, or I'm not the president of the Olsen twins fan club!"

Breaking character seems to be encouraged and, as is often the case in improv, sometimes the attempts at humor are hilarious, other times they're lame.

The show's most valuable player and The WB's most unlikely star is Tim Conway, the "Carol Burnett Show" veteran who is three times as old as most of The WB's stars.

"I'm very surprised to be here," Conway said at a January WB press conference in Hollywood. "As you know, my career is over."

Conway said most situation comedies today embarrass him with their sexual content, particularly if he's watching TV with his grown children.

"I watch a lot of animal shows," Conway said, building up to his punch line. "And during the mating season, I can't tell you how late I've stayed up to see a couple zebras go at it."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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