A White House plan for President Carter to address the nation on the Fourth of July over all three television networks was scrubbed when all three television networks indicated they had no interest in the idea.
Carter advisers never "officially" requested air time for the talk; instead, informal feelers were sent out to the three network news departments. This practice of testing the waters to gauge possible interest - "a fishing expedition," one NBC spokesman calls it - has been common practice through several administrations and is part of the ongoing and delicate relationship between the White House and the media establishment.
Gerald Rafshoon, Carter's top media adviser and recently promoted image-polisher, said yesterday it was his idea for Carter to speak "about where we have been and where we are going as a nation" on or just before the Fourth of July holiday and that he directed fellow adviser Barry-Jagoda to see if the networks would go for it. (Jegoda would not comment on any aspect of the talks yesterday.)
In the meantime, Rafshoon said, he learned that Carter wanted to spend 10 days at Camp David, starting June 30, and wouldn't be available for the telecast anyway. But by then, the three networks already had demonstrated unanimous lack of enthusiasm.
"Yes, we turned down," ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge said yesterday. "He wanted to do a kind of overview of his first year and a half in office. We just didn't think that was news or that there was any particular purpose to be served. It was just a speech he wanted to make about his presidency."
But Sanford Socolow, CBS bureau chief in Washington and currently the "pool producer" who passed on the White House idea to the other two networks after Jagoda contacted him, said he never considered the query from Jagoda an actual request for time.
"Roone Ariedge doesn't know which end is up," said Socolow. "Barry Jagoda did not ask me for air time. They were thinking about something out loud over' at the White House, that's all. We had extensive telephone conversations about it, but in no way, shape or form did the networks 'turn down' the White House.
"Those guys (at the White House) are entitled to blue-sky once in a while," Socolow said.
An NBC News spokesman acknowledged that the network had been contacted about a Carter appearance but decided that "as a matter of news judgment, it would not be something that we would clear time for." He said the White House communication had been "a what-if conversation."
What-if conversations can lead to formal requests for air time, and the networks usually comply when the White House sounds serious. There have been exceptions, however - most recently the CBS refusal to clear prime time for President Carter's thoughts on the Panama Canal treaty on Feb. 1. CBS delayed the speech to a later time period because network news executive determined there would be "nothing new" in it. The other two networks aired it live.
Earlier, Carter's advisers had informally said unofficially suggested network time for a Carter talk on New Year's Day, but when they tested those waters, one network source said, "Everybody threw up," so the idea never got any farther.
A key component in the balance of power between the networks and the White House is that the White House doesn't like it known that the president was turned down in a request for air time and the networks don't like it known that they turned him down. It is considered bad public relations for both sides, and so the informal "fishing expeditions" have developed to avoid large-scale embarrassments or public tussles over access to the airwaves.
Rafshoon conceded yesterday that the networks had not indicated great elation at the prospect of a Carter speech. "I don't think they were too enthusiastic," he said. "We still might like to do something like this eventually, though."
Carter's decision to spend 10 days at Camp David made the networks decision irrelevant, Rafshoon said. Even if the networks had responded positively, "I don't think we'd be able to find a soul brave enough to go into the Oval Office and tell the president that he'd have to interrupt his vacation," said Rafshoon.
And so the issue recedes - until the next time the president's advisers want to put him on television.