The trouble with bright young fellows like George Will is that they are too young to remember the Senate as it was long before the invention of TV networks ("Keep the Cameras Out of the Senate," op-ed, Feb. 25). Playing to the gallery was a grand old tradition long before reporters turned from their quill pens to their electronic display terminals.
In my youth in this business, I read the long, inspiring speeches of Sen. William E. Borah, the long hateful speeches of Sen. Theodore Bilbo. They were addressed to those on the floor and, above their heads, to those in the gallery reserved for the writing press. Those men did not stem the flood of their oratory for lack of cameras to stimulate them. In my subsequent early years in Washington, I recall the word going 'round: "Dirksen's up!" And reporters would fling themselves through the doors and down into the writing press' gallery to hear the melodious flow of golden syllables. No cameras brought it forth. It was for fellow senators and for the great magnet in the gallery: the pencil pushers who would lovingly spread each well-turned phrase across the nation on a flood of printers' ink. I really don't believe Dirksen could have pulled out any more stops on the organ of his voice had there been a camera focused upon him.
A few notes on Will's asseveration that TV would waste the senators' time by bringing them to the floor to be televised. It doesn't seem to bring them to committee sessions covered by TV. Many of our tapes show only one, two or three senators in their places under TV lights. And if it does bring them to the floor, shall we condemn it? The World's Greatest Deliberative Body ends up with more than three senators on the floor at one time--is that a loss? If senators listen to each others' arguments and respond to them in genuine debate rather than in posturing in an empty chamber for the Congressional Record (a printed document), is that retrogression?
What happens today, without TV coverage of the floor? Any senator who has said something he would like covered makes himself or herself available in the Senate's radio-TV gallery. Far from saving time for what Sen. John Danforth calls their "good work" in their offices, they are wasting time saying all over again what they have just said on the deserted floor.
Is television's "incitement to the 60- second trick," as Will calls it, a debasing of the senatorial process? As an avid reader of newspapers, as all must be who are truly interested in the news, I find The Post and The New York Times doing in print what we do on the air. Like us, newspapers take the quotes that seem to them most meaningful, most pungent, most neatly representative of what the senator has said and use them in quotation marks. I seldom see a quotation more than two or three print lines in length. Ours are longer in general. Like us, the newspaper then fills in between the quotations, which are the equivalent of our tape cuts, with the same kind of narrative and interpretive material we use, explaining and compressing the non- quoted matter to give a fair and true account of the speech or debate.
If it is quantity Will would fault us on--our tighter compression of a story into a smaller space than his medium would use--I could understand and even secretly sympathize with his argument. All of us in television news yearn to expand our stories into the equivalent of a two- column spread. But I would remind him that in his own column I have occasionally (too occasionally to suit me) seen half an hour's carefully structured questioning of an important newsmaker on "Face the Nation" transformed into two or three lines of brief quotation. Sort of a 15-second quick trick, as it were.
The Constitution, as Will observes, intends for the Senate a more aloof and deliberative role than that of the House. What Will means by that is that writers and editors of newspapers should be free to cut and snip what they please of the Senate's operation, and to spread their version across the nation to millions of readers. That, apparently, is aloof. But if TV shows the operations of the Senate floor directly, cutting and snipping in parallel to print editors, that is not.
It seems an odd construction of the Constitution.