Watching Jimmy Carter's press conference on television the other day, I couldn't help but note how much more profitable it is for a reporter to watch a picture of the press conference than to be there.
I don't like to admit this. My sense of propriety tells me that a reporter ought to be "at" the event rather than watching a picture of it. But if a reporter is not interested in counting heads, seeing old friends or vying to ask a question that will put him on television, the fact is that he will learn more by looking at the picture.
He can see the presidential face more clearly and more clearly note the presidential expressions and gestures. He can hear the presidential words better. He is undistracted by someone who whispers to him while the President is talking or elbows him out of the way for a place along the wall. He can even think more clearly about what the President is saying. Be being removed, he gains objectivity.
To the print reporter, there is a certain sadness in the recognition of this fact. There was a time when his sensing of the presidential mood, his description of the presidential manner were important. Now, he goes to the press conference only to satisfy his curiosity on some point that may not be seen ot felt on television and, in doing so, he risks missing out on other points that will only be transmitted by the medium itself.
How odd that in honoring his campaign pledge to hold reguarly scheduled and frequent press conferences, Carter has actually diminished the role of the press. The press cannot carry his message. It is already carried. And anyone who is as skillful before the camera as Jimmy Carter makes the role of the press as critic seem superflous.
The role as questioner, of course, remains. But it is a haphazard role, depending upon who gets the floor. At this last press conference a number of important questions went unanswered because they were not asked.
For example, Carter was not asked why he thought it useful to announce in advance the points that Israel's new prime minister will be asked to negotiate.
Instead, we learned his attitude about extramarital affairs among his assistants. There ought to be a way to ensure that questions directed to the President do not waste both his time and that of his audience, but nobody has been able to figure out what that way is.
There is no doubt, however, that the presidential press conference has gone the way of the presidential campaign. It is directed, staged and reheared not for the audience in the room but for the audience on the tube. Only three million homes out there are without a television set; 64 per cent of all Americans say they get their news from the television set, the average among them spends two hours and 53 minutes of each day watching that television set, and 51 per cent of all of them say that if they had conflicting reports between television, newspapers and redio, they would believe television.
And why not? As with the presidential press conference, they see it themselves. One recalls E.B. White's prescient words written for The New Yorker in 1938. White had watched a demonstration of the new medium and he was convinced that he had seen our future. "We shall stand or fall by television sounds may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air: a face contorted, seen in a panel of light - these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another's face, the impression will be of mere artifice."