One question that can justly be asked about a program like NBC's "A Portrait of the Press, Warts and All," airing at 10 tonight on Channel 4, is, What good is it? People who hate the press and consider it guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors are not going to have their minds changed by a media report on the media, while those who are terribly interested in and open-minded about the subject probably already know more than this program will tell them.
And those in between? As coproducer and correspondent John Chancellor says during the program, when it comes to the subject of Journalism in Our Time, "Most people don't give much of a damn about it." Tonight's grab-baggy show, which Chancellor calls "a personal essay, my view" concerning "this thing called journalism," has its illuminating moments, but it's rather haphazardly organized, and the "personal essay" label seems an excuse not to attempt to be comprehensive.
Chancellor talks about such problems as the perceived arrogance of the press, the new eagerness with which everybody and his lawyer sues for libel, real or imagined excesses of press coverage in recent years and so on, but he tends to avoid the more pugnacious nuttinesses, like the Jesse Helms stuff alleging some in the press are not just cynical but unpatriotic. Helms characterized journalists as "men and women who, if they do not hate America first, they certainly have a smug contempt for American ideals and principles."
This particular variety of ideological influenza was examined yesterday on the CBS radio broadcast "Newsmark," with Dan Rather. Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), a guest, said, "I see people bringing up patriotism when it's people's judgment in the news media that's being questioned." But then he also said of journalists, "What disturbs me is I find less and less of them who maybe went to West Point in their youth, or their son is going to West Point." And "I want to see more flag-waving by the press on more occasions than just space missile launches."
Dornan complained of never having seen "a major media figure" who would "stand before a college audience and proudly proclaim, 'I am an anticommunist.' I am," Dornan continued. "I mean, I say it all the time."
Maybe Chancellor didn't get into this because once you get into it, it's very hard to keep from throwing up your hands in exasperation. One thing Chancellor did get into is another kind of trouble. During his report he complains that ABC News and CBS News refused to supply clips of news broadcasts from their archives for use by Chancellor on his show. "We thought honest criticism wouldn't hurt anybody," Chancellor says, disingenuously perhaps, and he concludes from the refusals he got that "there are nervous nellies in every business."
In fact, of course, there are as many nervous nellies at NBC as there are at either of its two competitors. In terms of those who work in and run it, television really is Nervous Nellievision. Yesterday, an ABC News spokesman said that when a call was returned to Chancellor about his request to the network for footage, he told ABC that his program was already past its deadline and that it was too late. But Chancellor said yesterday from New York that he made his initial request to ABC on April 9, long before the deadline of June 7 and that phone call, which was made on June 10.
The CBS case is more complicated. While CBS News President Edward M. Joyce was considering the Chancellor request, he learned that Chancellor and his coproducer, Tom Tomizawa, had suddenly changed their minds about featuring WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, the CBS affiliate and one of the country's most ambitious local TV stations, on "Warts and All." The reason as CBS understood it: Complaints to NBC News from WTCN, the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis that would be airing "Warts and All" in that market.
A spokesman for WCCO said yesterday that Tomizawa spent a week in the WCCO news room studying the operation, then notified the station that no filming would be done there. Instead, an NBC affiliate, WSMV-TV in Nashville, was to be featured. When Joyce learned that, he wrote Chancellor that since NBC was being so "competitive" about things, CBS News felt no great compulsion to be ecumenical, and thus wouldn't supply news film. While Chancellor mentions the about-face over WCCO on the air, he does not link it to the CBS decision not to supply footage.
But yesterday Chancellor said "that certainly was a factor" in the CBS decision.
Meanwhile, and incidentally, WTCN, the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis, which is owned by Gannett, will officially change its call letters on July 4 to WUSA. Maybe that will make Rep. Dornan happy. (Except that, come to think of it, "WUSA" was the title of a left-wing Paul Newman movie about a vicious right-wing radio station. Oh well.)
As for "Warts and All," Chancellor wraps up the chatty program with his own little preachment about journalistic sins and possible avenues of redemption. Like most of the hour that preceded it, it seems a little quaint and soft. Television critics are supposed to get out their worry beads regularly and bemoan the passing of the prime-time documentary as one of the great calamities of the age. Perhaps it is -- but if you were going to try to make the case that the prime-time documentary is of earth-shaking importance to television and to the country, "Warts and All," would, unfortunately, be a pretty poor excuse for an Exhibit A.