An 'unglamorous' beat?; 'The Lawmakers' -- Public TV's eye on Congress
New York — The longest-running series on Public Television, "Washington Week In Review," has quietly hatched another practically unnoticed potential winner -- "The Lawmakers."
The host on both these public affairs shows in Paul Duke, sometimes identified as PBS's only avuncular (shades of Walter Cronkite) anchorman. As a matter of fact, in a recent interview it seemed to me that Mr. Duke possesses certain qualities found in both Cronkite and John Chancellor.
It is a wonder that commercial TV news, in its current search for new anchormen, hasn't snatched Mr. Duke away from his dual duties on PBS.However, a long hitch as congressional correspondent for NBC preceded his move to PBS in 1974.
For many news buffs, Friday night has become an all PBS night -- the evening starting at 7:30 p.m. with "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," then continuing with "Washington Week In Review," followed by "Wall Street Week In Review." One somehow feels more civilized and informed at the end of Friday night because of this trio of PBS shows.
"Washington Week" has gone through several changes of format in the almost 15 years it has been on PBS. Now it uses a set of around ten alternating newspapermen, called to duty depending upon the subjects to be discussed during the live round table.
According to Mr. Duke, the most popular figure ever on the show was Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily news, whose demise in 1976 caused both great sorrow and great fear that the energy level of the show would somehow be downgraded. But it has changed format slightly with a wider variety of newsmen and survived beautifully, to a point where it is still one of PBS's top-rated shows. Charles Cordry of the Baltimore Sun, Neil MacNeil of Time, and Harry Ellis of The Christian Science Monitor are a few of the regulars.
We talk about that show, but Mr. Duke has another interest -- they second season of "The Lawmakers" (PBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m., but better check local stations for premiere and repeats). He's a bit disturbed about the most recent events in TV news -- ABC's announcement that, with Westinghouse, it will soon start an all-news cable service.
"We'll be saturated with news," he says. "But the same kind we always get. There is a mind set at the three networks -- they want news to be brief and snappy. I believe they'd like to think of themselves as the New York Times of the air, but they just can't pull it off. They don't have the dedication to news to pull it off.
"Look at the 'Today' show today. There was a time 10 years ago when you could do an in-depth interview for 10 minutes. Once I interviewed Mike Mansfield for 12 minutes and had time to ask him 36 questions. Today, the maximum interview is four of five minutes.
"When it comes to indepth things they probably think, 'Leave it to MacNeil/Lehrer. Our audience won't sit and watch somebody explain something for 15 minutes.'"
"The Lawmakers" had a limited success last year, mainly because it was so little publicized, fine as it is. The show features Mr. Duke as major host, with two correspondents, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer (from National Public Radio).* There is also commentary by Charles McDowell and Otis Pike.
Is there really a need for still another public affairs show on PBS?
"The modus operandi of public broadcasting is that we gather in outside experts. We do that on 'Washington Week' on 'Wall Street Week' and on 'MacNeil/Lehrer.' This has been the way because public television has never had much of a staff itself. 'The Lawmakers' is, I think, the first time a public television series has gotten its own reporting staff on a regular basis.
"It is a program that is unique because Congress has never really been covered properly on television. One factor is that the glamour beat in Washington is the White House. Almost every day you see the White House reporter standing outside the White house -- so this is where the networks assign their glamorous correspondents.
"The stock answer I used to get when I was doing network news from Congress was 'That's just another Hill story.' Producers in New York do not understand Congress. The Hill is the most exciting place in town . . . and the most underreported on television."
What is the basic premise of "Lawmakers"?
"Our premise is that the Hill is really the heartbeat of Washington -- the most exciting place in town. On any given day there might be 50 hearings taking place between the House and the Senate. You might find a important political meeting taking place. We try to capture the human drama of all this, the flavor of the Hill, the drama of the Hill. There are 535 legislators up there. We don't do a talk show -- it's a magazine format."
No question about it -- while Mr. Duke enjoys doing "Washington Week," he is caught up in the enthusiasm of the new baby, "The Lawmakers." He is a pleasantly serious, stern-faced man with a look that constantly reveals concern, but a grin appears when he starts talking about "Lawmakers."
"I think it really stands a chance of succeeding if it is permitted to take root and flower," he says. "On television, news programs are not usually overnight hits. 'Washington Week' was not, '60 Minutes' was not. It takes commitment on the part of broadcasting executives . . . and they tend to prefer instant hits. But 'The Lawmakers,' if it is allowed to take root, is going to go the same route as 'Washington Week In Review.'"
What, other than huge audiences, would make the show a success for Paul Duke?
"There is extraordinary educational value in the show because Congress is not covered on TV. This is the first time anybody has ever really tried to capture the mood and the flavor and the excitement of Capitol Hill activity. I think congress is a kaleidoscope of America. If we get the feeling across to only one viewer, we will at least be on the road to success." 'The Gene Merchant's
Outside nuclear proliferation, genetic engineering may be considered by many the most frightening technology in the hands of modern man. Now industry as well as science has gotten into the gene-splicing business -- and the public has a right to be alerted to the dangers that may lie ahead.
Once again American commercial television is examining this potential danger -- as well as the salutary scientific effect -- which could evolve from our new-found knowledge about the splitting of genes (more than a year ago CBS did a thought-provoking documentary, titled "The Baby Makers").
"The Gene Merchants" (ABC, Friday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) is another in ABC Closeup's continuing attempts to investigate the various peculiarities of the world around us.
Under the aegis of executive producer Pamela Hill and senior producer Richard Richter, producer/co-writer Stephen Fleischman and director Pat Cook have made an honest effort to face head-on the problems, both physical and philosophical, that cannot be overlooked in any in-depth probe of the genetic revolution.
Much of the scientific world is awaiting in seeming anguish what the far-reaching implications of the not-so-carefully supervised progress in genetic engineering will prove to be at the same time that a great deal of the financial world gasps in anticipation of potential future profits.
Hosted by dependable correspondent Marshall Frady, this documentary covers this current rush toward progress and profit -- everything from the biological hazards to the ideological and religious objections are considered, with leaders in many segments of the population getting a chance to voice their views.
The documentary points, fairly, to many valid, practical, and carefully safeguarded scientific uses in industry for gene-splitting, processes that can increase oil production, extract mineral from rocks, etc. But Machiavellian maneuvers now at work -- stealing of scientific data, bonus payments to university reserachers, skirting of approved scientific guidelines in the rush to market -- are examined calmly, considering the immensity of the problem.
In order to be well enough informed, the American public deserves more than an hour -- perhaps even an hour five nights in a row, as CBS did recently with its study of US defenses. After all, gene technology is a matter of enormous concern to the world. As Mr. Frady warns: "It is a technology with a much looser and easier availability [than the atom]."
As scientists and philosophers mull over all aspects of tampering with human genes, this viewer found himself uneasily recalling all the assurances of safety from misuse of atomic energ issued by some of this same kind of scientific people 20 years ago. And I also recalled with a certain wariness the recent bull market in genetic engineering corporation stocks.
But conscientious program such as this -- incisive as it tries to be -- is almost bound to end upindecisive, because it cannot disregard the fact that it is blindly feeling its way to what some may consider the borders of creation. ABC News recognizes that fact and treads warily.
Its conclusion is one to which the world needs to pay special attention: "With all its promises and its perils, genetic engineering is still a frontier man is not likely to resist. . . . Can society trust those who stand to profit with this deepest power over life?"
Certainly society needs to know a lot more about the dangers of meddling with the unknown. "The Gene Merchants" should be part of every viewer's education.