American network executives said yesterday that they were told that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided against appearing on U.S. television before the summit because he had said enough publicly before his meeting with President Reagan.
One network executive, who had talked to two key Soviet aides working on this matter, said he was told that Gorbachev "got extremely close" to granting a presummit interview on a U.S. network and then decided against it when Reagan answered questions from Soviet journalists two weeks ago.
Several Soviets said that a Gorbachev interview on television broadcast to the American people would start "a new cycle" of Reagan-Gorbachev appearances, the executive said, making it more difficult for the Soviets to turn down an attempt by Reagan to face interviewers on Soviet television.
But this executive and other network officials said that they feel a Gorbachev press appearance may take place at the end of the Geneva meeting or shortly after it has become apparent what both sides will gain from the first Reagan-Gorbachev encounter.
"We have felt all along that at a point in time when Gorbachev and his people feel it is in their best interest, he will choose to be interviewed on or by American television," said Jeffrey C. Gralnick, vice president of ABC News. "I think they understand fully the value of that interview, both in terms of the reach it's going to have in the United States and the prestige it might bring a single network if they elected to do it.
"I think they're biding their time and waiting for the right moment," he said.
Some news officials who had been negotiating with the Soviets before the summit suggested that Gorbachev may have feared tackling some of the more sensitive issues that will come up in closed-door sessions with Reagan -- primarily human rights in the Soviet Union.
Gralnick and others said there had been no promises by the networks to stay away from tough questions, many of which have already been directed at Soviets who have made themselves available in Geneva for western reporters asking questions in the more aggressive western manner.
Timothy J. Russert, vice president of NBC News, said he thought that questions about human rights and other issues that would seem to be tough for Gorbachev were asked both in a Time magazine interview published in September and during a French television interview when Gorbachev was in Paris.
One network official, interviewed by telephone from Geneva, said there have been suggestions that the Soviets want to make Gorbachev available to the western news media on Thursday. But so far, he said, those suggestions have provided little more than a faint hope to the reporters in Geneva.
Representatives of the three major networks, Cable News Network and public television spent months lobbying various Soviet officials in Washington, Moscow and elsewhere in Europe for a chance at the first interview with Gorbachev for American viewers. Most said they were told late last week that their requests were being denied now.
"At this point, we're not counting on it before or during the summit, but we are still interested in interviewing General Secretary Gorbachev whenever he would agree to have a conversation with Dan Rather," said CBS Washington bureau chief Jack Smith from Geneva.