NETWORK EXECUIVES TALK ABOUT THE `OP-ED' ISSUE. Do we need an on-air version of `letters to the editor'? Perspectives on public access from Koppel and Chase
ONE of the big questions facing television today is how to give the public greater access to the medium so that a wider range of opinions on issues of the day will be heard. The Public Broadcasting Service recently aired a taped response by Accuracy in Media, a Washington-based news-media watchdog group, to the 1983 PBS series ``Vietnam: A Television History.'' A ``wrap-around'' discussion by experts followed.Skip to next paragraph
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The fact that PBS chose to air the response was more controversial than the content of the Accuracy in Media program itself. PBS was criticized for having granted the air time too hastily to AIM director Reed Irvine, one of the nation's most vocal media critics.
What has emerged from the controversy is the almost universal recognition that television must develop some sort of response mechanism comparable to the opinion (``op-ed'') pages and letters to the editor in newspapers.
The Monitor asked Ted Koppel, anchor man of ABC's ``Nightline'' and ``Viewpoint,'' and Barry Chase, PBS vice-president of public affairs programming, to discuss the issue. Here, in condensed form, is the conversation:
Monitor: It is generally agreed that there is a need to provide television viewers with a greater degree of access to broadcast TV, an op-ed type of response mechanism, something which most newspapers now provide on or next to their editorial pages. When CBS first aired its Edward R. Murrow report on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, response time was offered to the senator in advance. NBC News today occasionally offers independent producers short response time to material it has aired. ABC has ``Viewpo int,'' a four-or-five-times-per-year response program, usually aired late at night. PBS recently provided time for Accuracy in Media to respond to the ``Vietnam'' series. Barry, on the one hand you've been criticized for caving in to AIM, and on the other hand you've been praised for trying to find an op-ed mechanism. Did you cave in?
Chase: No. AIM came to us, as a thousand producers might come to us in the course of a year, with a product they wanted to air. Unlike ABC, we do not have a news division owned and operated by ABC-employed people who make all news programs directly. In our system we have to make a yes or no decision based on what is presented to us. We could have said flatly, ``No,'' and created all sorts of suspicions about the merit of the claims that we refused to put it on; we could have said flatly ``Ye s,'' and put the AIM thing on without the kind of context we believe it needed to make it understandable. What we did was find a third way -- we presented AIM's material and at least attempted to evaluate it.
Monitor: What other types of response mechanisms are you considering?
Chase: We'd like to have a regularly scheduled response mechanism, perhaps quarterly, which has the resources from the very beginning to act as an ombudsman for the people with complaints about what we have aired in the prior three months. I have in mind a unit, ready to go, that would serve as our ombudsman, and probably become very unpopular very quickly. I don't know how Ted avoids becoming unpopular when he does these things.
Koppel (smiling): Talent and charm, no doubt.
Chase: But someone who would then be able, independent of PBS brass and the producers who made the programs, to say: ``Hey, there are 50 letters about the show we did on the Russian community at Brighton Beach, and they have a point and I'd like to allow them to use some of our resources to produce a documentary making their own point.''
Monitor: But would it be one man -- the ombudsman -- making the decision?
Chase: Ultimately, as with most things, you would probably have to fool around with a committee. . . .''
Monitor: So, who would choose the committee?
Chase: The committee would be chosen on the advice of a lot of people in our system.