Let’s Watch 20/20, June 7, 1991!

In 1978, the US-based television network ABC was on top of the world with shows like Charlie’s Angels and ready to take on the behemoth CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. While 60 Minutes ran during primetime on Sunday evenings, 20/20 aired at 10pm on Friday nights (I’m certain a lot of readers here will know the show from catching the first few minutes after the TGIF sitcom lineup finished up). Although this placed the program at an obvious disadvantage to its main competitor, it found a solid market, and after a rocky first season found stalwart anchors in Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, who hosted for 20 years.

I was originally going to cover an episode from 1990 about Romanian orphans, but it turned out to be a nightmarish depiction of mass child abuse and neglect comparable to images of genocide that I was not prepared for and which I wouldn’t wish to inflict upon you. Instead, here’s a much lighter episode from a year later.

“Moment of Crisis”

First things first, sorry about the sound quality. And weird to see Barbara Walters out of soft focus.

This is about the flight of Jews from Ethiopia in the throes of the civil war that would end Communism in that country. Even years later, I remember this being a huge deal, and the coverage here is honestly quite racist, if unintentionally so.

First, Downs and the Tom Jarriel are continually mindblown by the existence of Ethiopian Jews, and insistently call them “Black Jews,” which is just so American I can’t take it. I also have to laugh at the anchors describing the Beta Israel as a “lost tribe of Israel,” though, if only to stop from gnashing my teeth in frustration, let alone ascribing this “lost tribe” description to the Israeli government itself! It’s a metaphor, would 20/20 have sent a meteorologist to report on Harold MacMillan’s “Wind of Change” speech?

Not to say this wasn’t kind of shocking, or that Ethiopian Jews didn’t have difficulty adjusting to life in Israel– these were people who had probably descended from the followers of John in the Book of Jeremiah, and thus practiced a Judaism with no Talmud.

“Born to Fly”

World War II context be damned, this is the fluffiest fluff that ever fluffed, to the degree that I have nothing to say about it. I know we were improving relations with the USSR– to the point it would cease to exist within a year– but did you know South Africa repealed the Group Areas Acts two days before this episode aired? Get with the program, 20/20.

“They Never Ever Listen”

How do you deal with kids with severe behavioral problems? I don’t know, how is a Friday night newsmagazine gonna help? And John Stossel at that! Even before he became an overt right-wing nutjob, his Glenn Beck snark voice is off the charts.

Remember last week, that documentary on Sneak Previews that was supposedly about nuclear war but was really about one woman’s book tour? In the same vein, this is a glorified ad for Dr. Stanley Turecki’s The Difficult Child.

These kids are in their 30s now, by the way.


The show follows up on an old piece on a Schizophrenia treatment drug called Clozaril. Apparently the Federal Government required states to cover the cost of the exorbitantly-priced medication. Somehow, this wasn’t controversial in 1991 but is now.

And then our hosts check in with Ted Koppel teasing about controversy over that day’s earlier Gulf War victory parade.

The version of 20/20 we’re watching today is radically different from the one I remember watching just a few years later. After Hugh Downs left, the program was (when not being temporarily cancelled) re-tooled to become way more sensationalistic. My memories of that period consist mostly of Barbara Walters asking every newly troubled starlet whether they were bisexual, while John Stossel, after discovering Reason magazine mid-career, would go on extended rants about the evils of organic vegetables or public transportation (despite receiving 19 Emmy Awards, he was frequently criticized by media watchdogs for spreading falsehoods about issues such as AIDS and climate change, and eventually moved to Fox News). There was at least one exposé on the dangers of crossing your legs “the gay way.”

Next Time: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, March 6, 1978