PETER Jennings, the thinking man's TV anchor, broke new ground in a speech in Nashville last week. He criticized some aspects of TV news coverage before an audience of about 1,300 people attending the convention of radio and television news directors. Those are the folks who make the decisions about what news coverage you get on your radios and television sets.
Zeroing in on network coverage of the Beirut hostage crisis, he said that he and ABC, as well as the other networks, made serious mistakes in their coverage. Some of the mistakes were ``vulgar,'' said Mr. Jennings. The networks hounded hostage families more than they should have, and they need not have rushed on the air with every breathless bulletin.
He faulted network public relations operations for crowing about network exclusives to the extent they do. ``It is vulgar.''
One widespread criticism of TV coverage of the hostage crisis was that the hijackers manipulated it to put inordinate pressure on the President of the United States. Jennings said it is wrong for the fate of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran, or 39 on board a TWA flight, to dictate US foreign policy in any region. He would, he said, like to see a President say one day: ``Thirty nine hostages are of great concern to me, but I am the President of 230 million Americans and my paramount concern is for all o f them.''
The ABC anchor man said that in their overemphasis on the Beirut story, the networks missed other important developing stories. ``There is nothing like a crisis to test our critical judgments on the universe,'' he said, ``and I think a lot of the viewers who rely on us feel cheated in those circumstances.''
Jennings also faulted TV news for its lack of in-depth coverage. Citing US ignorance about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism before the taking of American hostages in Iran, he criticized television for ``covering the explosion without reporting on the early-warning signs.''
While criticism is not new, the significance of Jennings's speech is that a major television figure was airing them. There have been a number of private seminars since the Beirut hostage crisis in which TV reporters, editors, and producers have examined their coverage, and sometimes found it wanting. But it is rare for prominent TV people to go public with critical self-examination, and he is to be commended for it.
It confirms that thoughtful people in the TV industry are concerned about the quality of electronic journalism and are trying to figure out how to improve it.
That is very good news.
Television covers some events in a spectacular way. Its nearly instant reach outpoints newspapers and newsmagazines, which have to get newsprint on presses and deliver the written story to the readers. But television lacks the depth and comprehensiveness of newspapers, and this puts special pressure on television to inject as much responsibility and perspective as it can into its capsuled news coverage.
Newspaper editors have no reason to feel smug about all this. Ten years ago or so, there was little inclination on the part of many newspaper editors to amplify, to correct, to flesh out, after they had gone to press with a story that turned out to be inaccurate. That has changed, and although the public still views many in the press as arrogant and removed, newspapers have introduced various techniques to correct mistakes and explain themselves better to the readers.
Television news has some catching up to do. It is very difficult to get anything corrected in the course of a live half-hour newscast. But there are some new ideas for airing response and criticism from viewers, and one hopes there will be more.
It is reassuring to know that at least some of those responsible for TV news coverage care about its quality and want it to be better.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.