TRUE TO HIS TRAINING, Robert MacNeil emerges in The Right Place at the Right Time as the Reuters wire of television news broadcasting. Like the London-based news service where he cut his teeth in the 1950s, MacNeil is clear, cosmopolitan, complete, straightforward, detached, vaguely "foreign" to American ears but not exotically accented, occasionally inspired, usually colorless, resolutely impersonal.
On the subject of his own career, MacNeil's memoir is true to form: sober, insightful, self-effacing. But like the Reuters wire the book at hand has too many sidebars for my taste. It provides too slight and too tentative a treatment of the main story--in this case the veritable monument the author built in PBS' nightly The MacNeil-Lehrer Report.
"MacLehrer," for short, has been the model for the best there is in modern television news. It anticipated ABC News' flashier, lucrative Nightline in defying the conventional industry fear of "talking heads," in devoting a half- hour and several select minds every evening to the crisis topic of the moment. If its current search for funding succeeds, MacLehrer will beat the commercial networks to the goal of an hour of news each night--and will doubtless prompt the rich competition to follow suit. We are talking, that is, about a formidable influence on television in general. I only wish the book at hand had more than a scant score of pages on the MacNeil-Lehrer program itself, especially as the whole effort seems largely the fruit of MacNeil's own experience and reflection.
For example, he teases us with some shrewd notions about the body language of television: he was in on designing MacLehrer's sculptured studio sets, interconnected between Washington and New York; and it was his idea to seat guests facing each other around a horseshoe, not in the customary pew full of panelists. But is he aware, I wondered, how distressingly expert and dispassionate MacLehrer's political talk tends to be--and how humorless? MacNeil tips his hat dutifully to his collaborators--especially Jim Lehrer, "the single most intelligent person I have ever worked with." Yet one doesn't get much feel for the way this remarkable program--a TV show run by journalists and editors, not producers --gets on the air night after night.
As autobiography the book has grave flaws. First, MacNeil is shy about himself; often it's almost as if he is trying, in news-writing fashion, to keep himself out of the story. Second, his sum of daily adventures over 20 years as a mostly junior correspondent with NBC and the BBC is--like most reporters' war stories--not a tapestry of history but a jumble of broken threads.
At the end of the book we still don't know which end of Canada MacNeil sprang from, or whether his family was one of wheat farmers or bankers. There is the vaguest mention of boys' school and dropping out of college--but we never learn which college, or whether he returned. He speaks of stumbling out of play-writing fantasies into journalism; it is never clear how much literature there was in his background, or his ambition. Among many interesting things Robert MacNeil doesn't say is what he reads.
Despite the book's title the long review of MacNeil's career before The MacNeil-Lehrer Report is mostly a sequence of second-hand reporting and opportunities missed. The Suez crisis of 1956, a key event, "awakened a dormant resentment of British colonialism," but MacNeil observed it from the Reuters copy desk in London. He covered Winston Churchill's funeral, but never met the man. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 MacNeil got into Havana, only to be locked in a hotel room and later to have all his detailed notes taken. On the press bus behind John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 MacNeil was among the first to hear the shots that killed the president; as he ran into the Texas Book Depository he asked a man leaving--evidently Lee Harvey Oswald-- for directions to a phone, and got an answer. But even a few hours later, "I had no memory of a face." MacNeil's narrative prepares us for a major interview with Charlie Chaplin in retirement, with Richard Nixon in the first months after the fall, with Ayatollah Khomeini in the middle of the hostage crisis, but eventually each interview falls through.
Yet another of the stories that got away, Vietnam, became and remains an obsession of MacNeil's. The confession here is frank and, I thought, redeeming. MacNeil had declined NBC's suggestion of a six-month Vietnam tour in 1967--out of concern, he admits, for his pregnant wife, his budding career as an anchorman, his income and his safety. Soon afterward he moved to the BBC as roving correspondent, mostly in Britain. But the Vietnam story remained his nightmare and the central subject of his reports from America. The fire inside the iceberg MacNeil is his abiding outrage at the machismo, the hype, the needless death, the deception and self-deception of the long war in Southeast Asia.
He writes about it still as his central warning lesson about American democracy and the modern practice of news. "Vietnam undid this country. . . . Television was blamed for making the war unpopular by showing its horror every night. But, inevitably, television sanitized the horror, domesticated and tamed it as suitable for family consumption at suppertime; not through any conspiracy to deceive but simply because television passes everything through a bland taste filter."
At a moment when it is more fashionable to be pondering our second and third post-Vietnam syndromes, I find it refreshing that Robert MacNeil is still angry and unblinking about the original disaster. We will need more of his self-criticism and professional boldness in the work of undeceiving us about disasters yet to come.