When 2,000 television people get together, guess what they put on? A television show.
It's a lucky thing they all arrived in Detroit this week to save the Republican Convention from the Republicans. Backstage maneuverings of the TV journalists have nearly upstaged backstage maneuverings of the politicos themselves, as the networks strove to make something showmanly out of the 32nd Republican National Convention.
"We'll be jumping to conclusions all night," promised no less a sage than Walter Cronkite during his weirdly pivotal interview Wednesday night with Gerald Ford in which Ford said that "under certain conditions" he might be Ronald Reagan's running mate. Conclusions were jumping all right, and what remained unclear yesterday and whether television had magnificently communicated the one suspenseful story of the convention, or if television had in fact just created that story for lack of anything else to report.
There seemed little doubt among the television people that they had been right even when passing along rumors about Ford that later proved untrue. The networks blamed Henry Kissinger for letting the deal fall through and Henry Kissinger, in an audience with Cronkite on CBS, blamed the networks for ruining the plan through overexposure.
Would the Ford business have gotten off the ground if not for TV? "Absolutely," said ABC's Barbara Walters from Detroit. "Reagan came here with the idea in his mind of asking Ford. I reported that Monday night and everybody laughed at me. Nobody took me seriously."
Commentator Bill Moyers reported it too, though mainly as conjecture, on Monday night's "CBS Evening News."
"What we put on the air was from very good sources and it was true at the time we reported it," maintained Russ Bensley, executive producer of the CBS News coverage.
But it was catch-as-catch-can there for awhile. At 10:04 Wednesday night, Cronkite relayed an "unconfirmed" report that Reagan and Ford had left their hotel together and were on the way to the convention hall. At 10:18, Cronkite confessed that the two were still at the hotel and having a meeting.
There were conflicting reports on another subject yesterday, the earthshaking matter of whether Walters had indeed appeared outside Cronkite's CBS anchor booth during the Ford interview and, according to an NBC News source, "pounded on the doors and demanded to be let in." She was "beside herself" and in "more than a snit," the spokesman said, and later could be seen "groveling" for an interview when Ford and his associates emerged from the booth.
"There was no pounding and no crying," said Walters yesterday in response to the colorful tale. Also, no groveling, "I don't know why CBS and NBC are spreading these stories around. I'm getting tired of being characterized as an unstable, manic, aggressive lady."
Walters said she has received a promise from Ford and his aide Bob Barrett on Sunday that Ford would give Walters an interview after he talked with Cronkite Wednesday night. Afraid that Ford might get away without being interviewed by her, and advised by Ford aides to pick him up at Cronkite's doorstep, Walters crossed the convention hall "practically crawling on my knees" to avoid cameras, and hoped to escort Ford back to the ABC News booth on the other side of the arena.
But Walters says she found a mob of reporters and photographers waiting for Ford to come out of Cronkite's booth. And when the Secret Service tried to get them to disperse, she told them she had an appointment with Ford and to check with Barrett inside. She insists she did not, and never would, try to bust into Walter Cronkite's booth.
"There were no tears in my eyes," said Walters. "I went up to Ford and I said, 'Oh, Mr. President! You promised you'd let me interview you if you could do it!' He joked about it at a luncheon today. He said, 'It was the first time a 110-pound girl had ever kidnaped a 160-pound man,' or whatever."
But a high-place CBS News source said Walters was observed by several CBS personnel to be "whining, her voice waivering, one-step removed from crying" as she pleaded with the Secret Service guy" to get her message to Barrett. She behaved "in a ferocious, unseemly way," the source said.
"The Secret Service man said, 'Please leave, Ford is giving no interviews,'" Walters recalled. "I said, 'Don't push me away; he's expecting me'" Walters denied a CBS News spokesman's account that had her yelling at a CBS page and demanding his name so that she could report him for insolence.
"He was doing his job, and he wasn't rude," said Walters.
We'll get to the bottom of this if it takes 100 years!
Meanwhile, though, there was action and adventure on the air as well. All night, NBC News had shown restraint in passing on rumors of the allegedly impending Reagan-Ford ticket. Then, an NBC News spokesman proudly declared yesterday, at precisely 11:54:41 p.m., according to the "time-coded videotape" of the broadcast kept in New York, NBC's Chris Wallace became the first man to report that the nominee for vice president would be George Bush, not Ford at all, even if the last five hours had been spent on speculation concerning him.
CBS concedes that its reporter, Lesley Stahl, did not report the Bush nomination until 11:55:05, although, a spokesman said, "Some people swear they saw Lesley on the screen before they saw Chris."
Can we run time-coded tapes again, please?
And an ABC News spokesman declared, "WE are claiming to be the third of the three networks in announcing the selection of George Bush."
NBC also pointed out, however, that it broke some ice at 10:40 (hundredths of a second not known) when reporter Jessica Savitch, with Sen. Paul Laxalt on the podium, told viewers that the issue was "still not decided" and that odds were now only 50-50 that it would be Ford. An hour later, Cronkite quoted the same odds from "an almost unimpeachable source." No, not Jessica Savitch. One assumes.
Wallace, 32, said yesterday he got his big scoop by chance. "We all thought it was Ford, though there were some indications it was not locked up," he said from Detroit. "We all expected the deal was going to be made, though. Then my producer and I were going up an aisle where I'd gotten a lot of good stuff before and one of the Reagan political directors, Frank Donatelli, comes careening up the aisle like a pinball in a pinball machine and he yells, 'It's Bush! It's Bush!"
"Then another guy, Don Totten from Illinois, also absolutely ashen faced, comes running up the aisle screaming 'Bush! Bush!' and I grabbed him, and we stood on a couple of chairs, and Don Totten told America who the vice presidential nominee would be. We have a button to the control room that we press when we've got something and I said, 'Put me on the air! We've got it!' They couldn't even find us with a camera, so it was essentially a radio report."
NBC's Tom Pettit, the crabbiest of all network reporters, later grumbled during post-mortems on the air that perhaps "networks competing for scoops" had been carried away and caused the very panic they were reporting. It did not seem a wild piece of conjecture. Wallace said yesterday that "things got a little out of control for the Reagan people. It really snowballed on them, and I think it was one of the reasons Reagan came to the convention hall early."
But it made for such good television . Perhaps that's the all-justifying excuse. No one had expected much such-good-television from the convention.
Another issue for soul-searching was whether Ford and his associates had cunningly used the Cronkite interview showcase as a means to pressure Reagan into accepting Ford's unwieldy and unprecedented terms and putting him on the ticket. "I think Ford may have used the interview with Cronkite to try to put pressure on Reagan," said Wallace. "I think that's possible, yes."
"It wouldn't surprise me," said Bensley of CBS. "But that interview had been scheduled for more than a week. He was offered to all three networks and it was just our turn. Still, it's not impossible he used that to his advantage." Does this bother Bensley? "No I don't think it does."
Certainly Cronkite did not exactly put the screws to Ford in the interview. It was so cozy, they should have done it in front of a glowing fire. When Ford said he had "conditions," Cronkite didn't even demand to know what the conditions were. At least Walters had the brass to do that during her interview a few minutes later. Of course Ford's answer was that he wouldn't discuss specifics. He could also be heard to mutter something about "the good of the country."
Cronkite was fairly chummy as well, with Henry Kissinger during their interview yesterday morning, though it was delayed slightly while Cronkite complained he couldn't hear Kissinger, being piped in to the booth on a TV screen, and diddled with a few buttons on the side of his desk. For awhile it was one of those "I can hear you, you can hear me?" exchanges. Finally the audio came through; "It was my fault," chuckled Cronkite. "I pressed the wrong button."
News of relatively low ratings for the conventions were not cheering to Walters. "To us, when you're here, and going through these crowds, and the hotel is so crowded you can't get out the door, and the elevators jam, and it's madness everywhere, and then you look at the audience and they're watching 'M*A*S*H' reruns and baseball games, it isn't encouraging," she said, "but what's happening is exciting and important."
Bensley said the ratings weren't as terrible as originally thought. "In the nationals, I think we had 45 percent of the nation watching the three networks," he said. "Considering the nature of the event, I think that's pretty good. People say you've only got a third or more of the total viewers, but that still amounts to, oh X million people tuning in to watch this stuff, and these are probably the people who will vote in November.
"I suspect it's a usefully exercise for them," Bensley said.
You notice he isn't absolutely sure about that.