A scoop is a scoop, and Tom Brokaw's exclusive interview on NBC with Mikhail Gorbachev -- warm, strong, confident and suddenly a familiar figure in America's living rooms -- was a great hour of television. It brought back to me memories of the granddaddy of such exclusives some 30 years ago, when, as CBS News bureau chief in Moscow, I helped negotiate and conduct the hour-long filmed appearance of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev on "Face the Nation." Khrushchev spoke from his Kremlin office, just down the hall from the cabinet room where Gorbachev held forth in his interview with NBC.
I remembered, too, the sweet taste of triumph over the other networks. But looking back on it, I also worry about the potential for media manipulation involved in the Soviets' bestowing such a huge competitive prize. NBC attributed its coup to "persistence and persuasion," but clearly there were other factors involved.
ABC had incurred the Kremlin's wrath with its anti-Soviet miniseries, "Amerika," last January. CBS said it was specifically notified that it would be denied an interview with Gorbachev before or during his American trip because of a hard-hitting documentary last summer about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and because of an aggressive question put to Gorbachev by Dan Rather during a press conference in Paris in October 1985 (it dealt with Jewish emigration and political prisoners).
The message from the Soviet government, as summed up by a CBS spokesman, was, "It will be a warm day in Siberia before CBS or Dan Rather receives a one-on-one with Gorbachev."
In a less sophisticated time, the Soviet regime might have closed down a network bureau, depriving itself of coverage, as it did with CBS in 1958. That was after "CBS Playhouse 90" presented a docudrama, "The Plot to Kill Stalin," suggesting Khrushchev's complicity in the dictator's death. In vain did CBS News plead then that it had no control over entertainment programming.
Today, however, a media-savvy Soviet regime, up to date on the reward-and-punishment techniques of behavioral psychology, lets an offending network know that it will suffer for its conduct in the fierce ratings race with its competitors.
That CBS was suffering was clear from the teletype message the president of its news division, Howard Stringer, sent to Gorbachev. It pleaded that "we have worked diligently to cover these stories in a balanced way," appealed to his sense of fairness and to "the best spirit of glasnost" and concluded, somewhat grandiosely, "We firmly believe that declining an interview with CBS News is not in the best interests of the United States and the Soviet Union."
It is not out of any animus toward the current generation of CBS executives (I left the network's employ after a controversy in 1976) that I would counsel against pleading with the Soviets, seeking return to their good graces or equating the interests of a journalistic enterprise with the interests of the United States, let alone the Soviet Union. Such pleading is generally futile and may be worse than futile, implying some promise of good behavior.
No one sought to equate our competitive strivings with national interest in 1957, when I was notified, in Moscow, that Khrushchev had accepted a longstanding invitation to appear on "Face the Nation." (I never did know why the Soviets chose us from many pending offers, although I heard that Ambassador Georgi N. Zarubin in Washington frequently watched "Face the Nation.") Indeed, the White House advised CBS that the Eisenhower administration considered it counter to the national interest to give the Soviet boss unhindered access to America's living rooms.
We were aware that the unexpected acceptance of our invitation had less to do with our enterprise than with an important Khrushchev interest -- resuming the Soviet-American dialogue about coexistence that had been chilled by the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956. My superiors at CBS, including President Frank Stanton, also gave me full support during sometimes tense negotiations in which we had to risk jeopardizing our exclusive rather than compromise our independence. Thus, we refused to submit questions in advance, as demanded, or to permit a veto over the panel of questioners.
Nevertheless, the Soviet regime acted as though CBS owed it something. Then (as with the Gorbachev interview) it was planned to show the program on Soviet television, where no interview with a Soviet leader had ever been seen. The Soviet regime had to make one deletion in its version, on a question of ideological differences with the Chinese communists, and I was chided for overly aggressive questioning.
In the ensuing six months, I was twice summoned to the Foreign Ministry press department to be admonished for reporting deemed objectionable, each time with a heavy-handed allusion to the "world-renowned interview." It was as though we were being accused of ingratitude. In December 1957, after an arrest staged by the KGB, I was excluded from the Soviet Union. Nine months later, the CBS News bureau was closed down.
The Gorbachev regime, more worldly-wise and media wise, acts more skillfully to exploit network rivalry. Incentives are created to temper coverage in order to win favor. If these subtle pressures are not resisted, the Soviets will have succeeded in manipulating American television, and thus the American people.
The writer, the senior news analyst for National Public Radio, was for many years a CBS News correspondent.