An almost jovial Chief Justice Warren E. Burger yesterday held out a glimmer of hope that the Supreme Court might, under strict limits, allow televised coverage of its proceedings.
Burger, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention here, said C-Span, which broadcasts House debates, might be allowed to cover the court. But he added a daunting caveat against selective coverage: "If there were some way of them saying any part of that, any segment, could not be produced without all the rest of it, conceivably, that might open things up."
Burger insisted that selective coverage of oral arguments would be "bad for the country, bad for the court and bad for the administration of justice" because networks would use snippets of the arguments that would give the public a "distorted conception."
Burger, who last month barred radio coverage of arguments next week on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law, also indicated that the justices might be distracted by the presence of cameras.
"We have enough difficulties grasping the nuances" of the often complex and sometimes "pretty dull" cases, he said.
C-Span Chairman Brian Lamb said Burger's restrictions would "create serious problems" because of the network's policy to share its product with other news organizations. But he added that Burger's willingness to consider coverage was an encouraging first step toward cameras in the courtroom.
Experts in First Amendment and copyright law also said they doubted the court could make such an all or nothing requirement for television coverage or giving an exclusive contract for one broadcaster and requiring that it not be shared.
The fact that several colleagues of Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) have donated money to help him pursue his libel action against McClatchy Newspapers has raised the hackles of a number of newspaper executives.
These editors and former editors decided yesterday that they wanted to lend moral support to The Sacramento Bee, which wrote a story in 1983 alleging that pre-tax profits were being skimmed from a Carson City, Nev., casino when Laxalt owned it.
"Although some editors feel contributions by the senators are perfectly legal and perfectly honorable, it tends to perhaps indicate that they have prejudged the case," said Michael Gartner, vice president of the editors' association.
"Senators have total immunity for what they say on the floor of the Senate, and it was simply that the scale of the publicity has been unbalanced," Gartner said. "The thought was that we needed to point out that Sacramento Bee is a hell of a good newspaper."
One version of the statement, still being circulated late yesterday, said that in view of "this unusual public expression" by the senators, "we feel it equally appropriate to express our support for The Sacramento Bee, its editors and its news policies, including the kind of investigative reporting which keeps the public informed about its public officials."
One participant stressed that this statement does not comment on the facts of the case, and the editors said they hoped to have the newspaper society endorse their views at an executive board meeting today.
Among senators contributing to a fellow senator's defense, according to The Associated Press, are Ted Stevens (R-Alaska),$100; Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), $500; Jake Garn, R-Utah, $100; Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), $50; Malcom Wallop (R-Wyo.), $100; and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), $100.
Among journalists endorsing another journalistic institution are Gartner, Chicago Tribune editor James D. Squires, Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, Nashville Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler, Newsday editor Anthony Insolia, former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship and St. Petersburg Times chief executive officer Eugene Patterson.
Taking some of the force out of the widely held view that most U.S. editors think alike, a Washington Post poll at the editors convention here showed that half the nation's top news executives think that President Reagan has been treated fairly in the press, one-third feel that the major media are too soft and one-sixth felt that coverage is too critical.
Editors also expressed similar feelings about news coverage of large corporations, labor unions and Congress in the survey conducted Tuesday by Marketing Analysis Associates, a Washington-based marketing and opinion research firm.
The results showed:
*Forty-nine of the 100 people interviewed said media coverage of Reagan is fair, 35 said it is not critical enough and 16 said it is too critical.
*On large corporations, 45 percent said the media are fair, 40 percent said they are not critical enough and 15 percent said they are too critical.
*On labor unions, 50 percent said coverage is fair, 44 percent said it is not critical enough and 6 percent said it is too critical.
*Editors gave the media the worst ratings for their handling of Congress. Thirty-eight percent said coverage of Congress is fair, 54 said it is not critical enough and 8 percent said it is too critical.