As a President who looked like Jimmy Carter but sounded like Woodrow Wilson was calling at Notre Dame University for a new foreign policy based on social justice, it occurred to me that television news had been thrown a new challenge.
Carter called for "a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in its historical vision." If that is the kind of foreign policy the Carter administration is going to pursue, then television news departments may have to find ways to cover "decency," "optimism" and "historical vision."
I hope they don't try. Not because these attributes of life are not laudable. They are. But they are also very illisive, both in their application and in their resistance to the imperatives of daily television news coverage.
And there is another danger. Inevitably, such coverage would compound a prevailing sin of the networks in their coverage of foreign affairs. That sin is to mistake coverage of a President as he talks about foreign affairs. That sin is to mistake coverage of a President as he talks about foreign affairs, here and abroad, with telling viewers what is happening that is interesting outside the United States.
I have deliberately used the word interesting rather than important. Journalists, those in print and those in television, should not confuse the two. You can go broke covering important stories that are absolutely no interest to your viewers and your readers.
My instinct over the past few weeks, as I have watched television coverage of Carter in Europe, Mondale in Europe and Andrew Young in Africa, is that the networks have continued to follow the same pattern of coverage that began with John F. Kennedy's trip France and Vienna in the spring of 1961 - namely confusing foreign trips of Presidents or their aides with foreign coverage.
Apart from 10 years of massive coverage of the war in Vietnam, television's coverage of the world has taken a back seat to internal preoccupations during the past 15 years. (The same thing can be said of newspapers and magazines, which still does not make it right.)
While it may not have been right, it was certainly understandable. Beginning with the sit-ins of the early '60s, the assassinations, the riots, the war itself and the demonstrations it produced plus Watergate combined to absolutely dominate the attention and capacities of news-gathering organizations.
But that period is behind us and there are events, not just in the Middle East but also in Western Europe, that command our attention because they are interesting - the possibility of Socialist-Communist coalitions in France and Italy, the sliding pound sterling in Britain, oil spills in the North Sea.
Oil spills provide no problems for television news. But how do you film a sliding pound sterling or make visually interesting the possibility of a Socialist-Communist government in France or Italy before the event happens?
Or closer to home. While we are now going through an understandable period of journalistic preoccupation with Fidel Castro, do Americans receive much in the way of interesting fare about the rest of Latin America? Or how much information do they receive on a continuing basis about Canada, not just the possibility of Quebec becoming a separatist state, but of Canada itself?
All these matters may be, in the near or long-term future, very important to us. Historians usually make that judgment. But for the moment, they are interesting stories that might just absorb the viewers who think that the three major evening news shows look and sound the same, namely rather boring.
It is both a challenge and an apportunity for television news. And it would be a good deal more interesting than following Presidents on their ceremonial ports of call.