Washington — Robert J. Donovan, a highly respected journalist and historian, was holding forth on the differences between the press coverage during the Truman years and now. ''Was it better then?'' he was asked.
''No,'' said Donovan, who covered Washington for more than 20 years, first for the New York Herald Tribune and later the Los Angeles Times. ''I don't think so. I am one, you know, who has really lived through the great revolution in reporting. And that is the onset of television.''
He continued: ''I was the chief of two news bureaus here, and I was caught right in the middle of it. Reporting just had to go through a great change beginning in the '60s. That's the great revolution in my lifetime in journalism, and it certainly is the great revolution in covering the White House.''
He paused, and tackled another aspect: ''The best papers in this country,'' he said, ''according to my understanding, tried very hard to overcome the days of yellow journalism. They went to the extreme of straight reporting to get away from this period of yellow journalism. And it was considered then a great step forward.
''And we all approved it. But it was generally 'Who-said-what-and-why-and-when-and-where' kind of coverage. For example, on the campaign trains, all we had to write about was what the candidates said.
''Talk about issues. We wrote about issues all of the time. There wasn't the kind of searching, behind-the-scenes journalism that there is today. Coverage today is better.''
Mr. Donovan, author of the newly published ''Tumultuous Years, the Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949-53,'' turned to adversarial and investigative reporting:
''I don't approve of all of this adversary journalism,'' he said. ''I think that public officials are sometimes treated unfairly. On the other hand, I think they got away with murder in the old days.
''If investigative reporters I've known around Washington had been turned loose, the way they are now, on the Roosevelt administration, with all that money pouring out of the alphabet agencies, we would just have had a field day here in town.''
Donovan commented on the size of the White House press corps, then and now.
''It was much smaller coverage then,'' he said. ''I suppose there might have been a dozen regular reporters in the press room. And one plane took everyone to Wake Island - one of those old Boeing Stratocruisers.
''But when I went around the world with Nixon in 1969, there were two 707s just carrying the press. And I found you couldn't even get close to the people you were covering in that kind of mass coverage. We could talk to Truman. We could always get close to him.''
As the White House press corps got bigger, Donovan said, it became necessary for a few reporters to cover the President and then report back to the others.
''A big change, too, in the press coverage,'' said Donovan, ''was the arrival of the jets. That changed the presidency more than people realized. There was Eisenhower's great trip to India in 1959 - which I covered and which I think was the great spectacle of my life.
''But the jets made the great difference. Theretofore, presidents couldn't travel. They couldn't leave this country. There were very rare cases when they did. Woodrow Wilson to Paris was a notable one. But presidents couldn't leave, because traveling by ship meant they had to be gone too long.
''The jet planes just opened the world to presidents. And they loved it. And they couldn't stay off them. And I think it has made a great difference in the presidency, in the coverage of the presidency, and in diplomacy.''
Moving to other topics Donovan had this to say:
* On rating presidents of the last 50 years: ''FDR was first. The greatest of all time. Second? Truman maybe. Ike maybe. LBJ had potential to be great. Nixon had a great opportunity to be great. I've never known Reagan. He gets a pretty good press. Ike and Reagan are similar in one respect: They both live the sumptuous life. I thought Carter was better than the press showed him to be.''
Was he surprised by the upgrading of Eisenhower by historians? ''No,'' he said, ''Eisenhower was a solid president who left the country in a strong, stable condition.''
* On what impressed him about Truman: ''Truman's lack of deviousness. He had no shell game going, like Johnson and Roosevelt. He was under enormous pressures , at home and abroad. . . . He knew more about the ordinary American than any other president I know about.
''He was not cocky. He was brisk, brusque. He was a different man when not under attack. . . . He was always sober-minded. He felt the burden of the White House. And when under attack, he fought back.''
* Observations on other leaders he knew: ''The Kennedys wanted you on their side always. . . . We knew Nixon back when, long before he was President. He was a very hard man to like. And the people around him were hard to like. . . . Truman had a rather low opinion of the press. He once referred to them as 'news jerks.' ''