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
New York — 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.
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.
Monitor: Sounds like a lot of hassle just to choose a committee. Ted, ABC's ``Viewpoint'' seems to function well without a committee -- with you acting as a sort of ombudsman. Do you feel that ``Viewpoint'' is the answer to the proper op-ed mechanism?
Koppel: I think Barry's instincts are right. On ``Viewpoint'' we have found, to our enormous surprise, that while we thought when we began this process of viewer response that once people knew we were doing the program, hundreds or thousands of letters would come pouring in saying: ``Here's what we think of you. Here's where you've totally missed the boat. Why don't you have more of an alternative point of view?'' And then, of course, they would tell us what that alternative point of view sh ould be. But, now, we frequently find ourselves sitting there between ``Viewpoints,'' wondering what we are going to do on the next ``Viewpoint,'' because while of course we get some critical letters, it is very, very rare that we get a wave of critical response to anything we do that requires a 90-minute program like ``Viewpoint.'' Part of the answer is that we try as good journalists to provide a fair balance to begin with. Now, no matter how balanced you are in your reporting, you are always going to off end some people. But there's a big difference in offending some people and doing something that is so offensive that it requires an institutional response. It is very rare we find ourselves dealing with that kind of subject. In the context of the hostage situation, I can think of half a dozen subjects which the public finds offensive in the media's response.
Monitor: But how do you prevent the organization with the most organized voice, the individual who stamps his foot the loudest, from getting the response time? Barry has already suggested some sort of committee. Ted, how do you make the decision about who is to get the response time?
Koppel: My easy answer, Arthur, is that I don't make that decision. It's kind of an institutional decision which ultimately has to be made at the level of a Roone Arledge [ABC News president].
Monitor: ``60 Minutes'' executive producer Don Hewitt has suggested that CBS gather together an impartial panel (although he didn't say how such a panel would be chosen) which would review requests for op-ed reponse time, decide which requests are valid, and then offer them CBS facilities to produce the response. How does that strike you?
Koppel: My problem with that . . . and partly in what Barry did with the PBS response . . . is that I think we're beginning to put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LAB-le here. I think if you have done your best to put together, as PBS did, an extraordinary 13-hour series on a very difficult subject, the statement you are making cannot hope to be perfect. After all, we are going to make some mistakes in whatever we do, but we want it understood that we have done the very best we could. Period . Here it is. We stand on it. I think the minute you begin to get into a frame of mind where you say ``Well, if we make a mistake there is always `Viewpoint,' there's always the option of allowing our opposition to produce their own program -- that's getting it all backward.
Chase: There's another danger: that producers will start to pull their punches right from the outset, because of the possibility that they'll have to cope with some criticism. What we did with the Vietnam response program is not a model for the ages. We had a situation that could have been a problem. We tried to turn it into an opportunity. I'm hopeful that the experience will put the need for a regular viewer response mechanism a little higher on our agenda.
Monitor: Ted, do you feel that you have the proper op-ed mechanism with ``Viewpoint,'' or is there a need for something else?
Koppel: It's sort of self-serving if I say that I think we've got enough. But I do think we've got enough. The existence of not only ``Viewpoint'' but ``Nightline'' provides the public with a ready-made op-ed forum. If the question is, should the networks be responsive to the public perception that unfairness has been committed, the answer is unequivocably ``Yes.'' Should the networks feel obligated to make time available to someone whose political appetite is not fulfilled by what we've don e on the air? The answer is ``No.'' I do not feel that simply because someone is particularly insistent on laying claim to representing the public or representing other views which he claims are not heard enough on television that that necessarily makes him the acclaimed holder of the title.
Chase: But the reality is that the squeaky wheel is the one that gets heard first. . . .
Monitor: Ted, might not the public perceive it as arrogance on the part of network TV that it feels only it can make the decisions?
Koppel: Why is it arrogance to say that anyone is free to criticize us? Why is it not arrogance for one man or one organization to proclaim itself universal critic on behalf of unheard-from America?
Chase: Let me say that the model I would like to see on PBS . . . [is] a production unit which would have as its only task the production of a quarterly response vehicle. So there would be no conflict of interest.
Monitor: Barry, is this a wild dream or something actually on the drawing board?
Chase: Let me put it this way. Within PBS headquarters it is somewhere near the top of the priority list. Even given the fact that money is a problem these days, I think it has better than a 50-50 chance of appearing on the air within the year.
Monitor: Ted, if you were given complete freedom at ABC, is there another kind of op-ed show you would do?
Koppel: One of the great complaints I have about doing both ``Nightline'' and ``Viewpoint'' is that it deprives me of the opportunity to suggest what I would do if I had complete freedom. The truth is, if I had that, I would only do what I am doing. If we discover new ways of doing the job, we will put them on the air.
Monitor: And you Barry?
Chase: I have a glimmering oasis in my head for a program that would contain several documentaries, taking in more than one topic, although in some cases all the time might be devoted to one topic. There would be many points of view from many sources.
Monitor: Barry, aren't you really describing ``Viewpoint''? Why not just put ``Viewpoint'' on PBS . . . but at an early hour?
Chase: That would be great. We'd be delighted to talk to Ted or Roone Arledge or anyone else at ABC. It is [former CBS News president] Fred Friendly's idea, by the way, that PBS should put criticism of all the networks on in one grab-bag program of media criticism.
Monitor: So, we all agree that there is a need for op-ed response mechanism on broadcast television. We agree that ``Viewpoint'' does a good job but needs to be on at more specific times and at an earlier hour. We agree that the recent PBS Vietnam response was only a temporary answer, definitely not the final solution to finding a proper response mechanism. However, one unexpected fact revealed here is that, according to Ted, there is not the great demand for response time which some of us m ight have suspected.
Koppel: There is simply not the outrage against what appears on TV that so many critics would have you believe. Viewers say: Make your comedy funnier, your mysteries more mysterious. But say to the public as we have on ``Viewpoint'': ``If you out there feel that there is a particular issue in which we have shown bias, let us know about it'' and there is a resounding silence.
Monitor: Let's hope readers of this dialogue will break some of that silence.
This article is part of an occasional series of Monitor discussions with television executives about current issues inside the TV community that will soon affect all viewers.