New York — ''I would breathe a lot more easily,'' says the man who helped package and broadcast 2,860 NBC Nightly News programs, ''if viewers could get more of their facts in print.'' Twelve years behind an anchor desk have made one thing abundantly clear for this life-long journalist: ''The world is getting very complicated.''
John Chancellor, capping a 35-year career in network news, is concerned about the heavy reliance on TV news by a significant portion of the country. That puts a huge responsibility in the hands of a precious few gatekeepers. ''The expectations on this medium are higher than TV technology can satisfy,'' he says. ''We could have a three-hour program every day and not be able to cover adequately some of the elements of the news which I regard as important. However big the vessel is, it just is not designed to provide a full service.''
Relinquishing the anchor desk last April (''It took two good newsmen to fill my shoes - count 'em'') Mr. Chancellor has become NBC's thrice-weekly ''resident commentator.'' With his new hat comes a different pair of glasses and a sidelines vantage point. From here, he recently donned his commentary specs to assess the world of network broadcast news. His reservations, ruminations, admonishments, and insights about his own world are remarkably candid. Throughout, comments about the profession in which he spent 35 years getting to the top, bear the same stamp of straightforwardness that got him there.
In his 12th-floor NBC office in mid-Manhattan's RCA Building, Chancellor is not found relaxing - even on this Friday morning with no commentary due till Monday evening. But a man who has stalked his share of Begins and Sadats, Fords and Carters since 1948 is more than gracious in taking a turn on the other side of the microphone.
The oligopolistic power of the networks has increased over that time, he says , in the hands of those few ''telegogues'' who select, edit, and deliver what a willingly captive audience shall hear on the issues of the day. He is optimistic about that power in some regards, pessimistic in others. Yet the latter observations are tempered with a dadlike reassurance that says, ''It can all be otherwise.''
Chancellor says viewers should remember that TV does not handle facts as well as print - especially economics, investigative pieces, stories that allow the reader of the newspaper to go back and read that complicated paragraph two or three times. ''You can't do that on TV. In investigative reporting, a newspaper can print the documents much more easily than we can.''
He says that for viewers to get a balanced picture of what's going on, they should watch TV, read at least one newspaper, and at least two news magazines regularly.
''Each one of those three elements of journalism does one or two things exceedingly well,'' Chancellor adds.
He has another antidote for the inherent limitations in TV news: a one-hour network news.
''When I started anchoring in 1970, I never for a minute thought I'd be writing about the price of light Kuwaiti crude. And I really didn't understand a lot about economics. This is true of many journalists. In those 12 years you had to help the audience learn as you were covering the news, and in an hour you could do an infinitely better job of that.''
Other improvements in a one-hour format a la Chancellor would include clustering commercials toward the beginning and end of each broadcast and expanding the news to include more background and perspective, more interviews and ''special segments'' (NBC's term for five-minute and longer expository pieces).
''It isn't that I would expand the news in terms of its capacity to cover events. We can cover events reasonably well. I would expand the news to include more explanation of what those events mean and how the world works and how it's all interrelated. We really belong to a larger community now. There can't be any isolationism in American journalism.''
To Chancellor, today's network TV news is too ''episodic,'' reflecting the fact that TV's first generation is still with us.
''There was a lot of novelty to (television) in the first 10 years. The Today show had a very successful feature. They would go out - when I look back on it, it's hilarious - and find old buildings slated for destruction. They would send Irving R. Levine and live black-and-white remote cameras to watch the building being knocked down. Everybody loved it. Why? Because TV was brand new. It's as though the country were all chimpanzees delighted by any kind of movement, banging noises, etc. You shouldn't still be doing that today.''
Chancellor questions whether national TV news broadcasts should still cover plane wrecks and train derailments, now that some of television's novelty has worn off. He says others argue with him that since TV is a visual medium, one ought to show the train that's flipped off the tracks. Yet he questions the practice if the event has no large consequence. ''I can see why you put it on if a town has to be evacuated. But I don't think you put it on just to show pictures. People are tired of that. They're more sophisticated. They expect and demand more from TV.''
Chancellor also has strong feelings about many local stations' practice of setting up cameras at disaster sites - plane wrecks, fires - to transmit straight images for 15 to 20 minutes. ''That's not journalism,'' he says. ''That's electronics.''
He mentions a lack of expertise, coming on the heels, ironically, of advances in communications technology.
''The changes in speed of travel and communication have meant that foreign correspondents today are no longer the kind of regional experts they used to be, in many cases. Reporters in all media are sent halfway across the country in a day and expected to file the following morning, or in our cases, many times that night. I liked it the old way better. I thought it produced a little more thoughtful journalism than we have now.''
He says when he began with NBC in London in 1960, there were no satellites, no jet planes, no data VDTs (video display terminals). ''We really thought we were members of an elite fraternity like the foreign service,'' he adds. ''I don't want to say that in a pompous way, but you were expected to know about the language and the history, a little bit of the culture of the country you were in. You were supposed to know its political leaders. Part of the time it was like graduate school.''
The new situation is inescapable, says Chancellor, since an editor is always going to try to get a reporter to file a story as quickly as possible. ''I don't want to sound like an old geezer complaining. I do think that it's changed the manner of a lot of reporting. It's to the bad, because it detracts; it just means that you have people turning up for a lot of stories who aren't as well-grounded in those stories as maybe they ought to be.'' 'Use' of media
In his recently released book, ''Media Unbound,'' author Stephan Lesher says, ''The families of hostages, Khomeini, the Iranian militants, Presidents Carter and Reagan and their advisers - all knew how to handle journalism; journalism didn't seem up to handling them.'' He then quotes John Chancellor, referring to this growing sophistication in ''using'' American media: ''We are becoming more vulnerable as they are becoming more skilled.''
Asked to elucidate, Chancellor says news sources have used media for a very long time. He says the practice started in large scale before World War I, when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany gave an anonymous interview to a London paper just to sensationalize ideas he wanted out in public. That kind of media manipulation occurs frequently today.
''We are used,'' Chancellor says. ''What I think is that we probably should be used. By that I mean as a transmission belt, not manipulated.'' He refers to Walter Cronkite's role in getting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem:
''What Walter and CBS News did was what you and I would do: He picked up the phone and called Begin's office and said, 'We have the President of Egypt. He says he's willing to come to your country. Would you take him in?' And they said , 'Yes, we would.'
''Once the trip was planned, both Begin and Sadat were masters at keeping the media involved, Chancellor says. In order to get publicity in the United States, both leaders wooed Cronkite, Barbara Walters, and himself to fly on the plane with Sadat to Israel. The experience was one of the standouts in his 35 years of journalism.
''It just was a sensational experience. Were we being used? Yes, we were being used. Did it result in a lot of publicity? Yes it did. Was it a very big story? You bet! But I don't mind being used if the story is a big and important story. And I don't think we're manipulated in a narrow way too much. ''Censoring the news
Chancellor refutes one oft-heard complaint against network news: that its proprietors present only those stories that will not adversely disturb their status quo - censoring what might profit their competitors or competing religious, social, or economic groups such as labor, education, small business.
''I can't recall a time, seriously, when our coverage of the news was interrupted or inhibited or changed by some outside group, like a sponsor or like some of the operations that monitor TV, or certainly by the government. It just has not happened. We listen to the complaints, and this summer I've had many of them because of what I was reporting from the Middle East. They have died down. All that's over, and I'm not regarded as an anti-Israeli correspondent. I was for a while.''
He also refutes charges that networks use show-biz values to boost ratings. ''They never gave me the slightest hint at NBC that they were dissatisfied with me because of the ratings on the program. I don't worry about ratings. I never had to. TV, if you think about it on the network level, has been quite respectable about putting journalists on TV.
''Walter (Cronkite) was no great shakes when he began, but he was a serious journalist, and they just stuck with him and it built very nicely. Nobody had ever heard of (Chet) Huntley, except people on the West Coast where he was known as a courageous and liberal commentator. And (David) Brinkley was just sort of a guy who had come to us from the UP (United Press) out of the Washington bureau. We all - and I include many other people who appear on TV - paid our dues in this business, and we have not any of us been replaced by hotshots, by the young , hair-sprayed, local anchorman type.'' Bringing horror into the living room
How does John Chancellor feel the networks fared in their instant coverage of the assasination attempts on Pope John Paul IIand President Reagan?
''The words you use, you don't have time to write. It's all ad-lib,'' he says. ''I always try not to get too hysterical about things, because hysteria on the part of the journalists who are bringing you the horror just compounds it. I try to just cool down and not be too emotional about it, and that's a fair technique.
''I'm personally disturbed sometimes at the world's capacity now through TV and radio to bring horrors into your living room. On the other hand, I can't find any ethical reason to be against it. We've always been in the business of covering conflict and change. That's what journalism is all about. That's what it has to be about. What you had in the shooting of Reagan and the shooting of the Pope was conflict of a very high order of great interest to people all over the world. Our technology was used adequately in that.'' Extreme centrist
The flip side of John Chancellor's new 10-hour-a-day job is that those 90 -second slots are all his. When he gets in front of the camera, he can say what he thinks. How things ought to be. The comments bear his signature, of course, not the network's. Yet he speaks about the great responsibility inherent in holding such power.
''I'm even more a member of the extreme center now. I think of myself as writing for a kind of an op-ed page on the nightly news. But I also realize I'm the only writer on that op-ed page. I could say so-and-so ought to go to the Senate. But I decided that I ought not to do that, because there isn't any alternative to me. There's no guy who would be of the extreme right or the extreme left who would come on after as a kind of corrective. So we don't endorse.''
Getting to this point takes someone who is trusted and knows how to tread delicately. John Chancellor, already considered by his peers to be the consummate journalist, was voted second to Harry Reasoner as most trusted of 27 news personalities in a national TV Guide poll in September. He now draws on experience taking him back to his first political assignment for NBC News - reporting from the floor of the 1952 Republican and Democratic Conventions. He went from there to Midwestern correspondent, foreign correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, ''Today'' show host, and chief White House correspondent. Somewhere in there he had time to direct the Voice of America for two years. He is still senior election-night analyst.
His latest bailiwick may come as close to ivory-tower journalism as anyone ever gets. It certainly isn't journalism with the shirt sleeves rolled up. He winds out a week in wheat-colored herringbone tweed, a paisley kerchief peeking out of his pocket, and a thin gold bar holding his collar crisply. And this off-camera incarnation wears rimless wire-frame glasses. ''They're lighter than my 'tell-the-truth-to-America' glasses,'' he says. He is surprisingly tall and broad shouldered, a commanding presence.
So the man who told us about attempts to assassinate Presidents Ford and Reagan, George Wallace, and Pope John Paul II now comments about crime in the streets and streamlining the courts. The man who read us the news of Three Mile Island and SALT I and II now expounds on Roman Catholic bishops declaring nuclear war a sin. The man who reported on years of Japanese infiltration into US markets now comments on America's product-related inferiority complex.
In his most notable commentary to date, Chancellor called Israeli attacks in west Beirut ''savage.'' Present there Aug. 1, when Israeli bombers attacked the western section of the city, Chancellor opened his remarks with: ''What in the world are the Israelis doing in Beirut?''
His commentary - referring to ''imperial Israel'' - brought plaudits from fellow journalists, a thousand letters each to him (mostly in favor) and the network (mostly against), and notoriety for one of the more courageous commentaries in what is often considered pro-Israeli US journalism.
It was also cited as one of the cinders that ignited Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to charge American TV with deliberately presenting news from Beirut in the worst possible light. The commentaries were defended by Reuven Frank, president of NBC News, and criticism has since died down.
Many of his commentaries are explanations of complex issues: federal taxes, federal budget, trends in high technology, school prayer precedents, Israeli readiness.
''I get a lot of letters, because some of the pieces I do now are just explanatory pieces. They just say, 'If you want to know why this or that has happened, here's why.' People write in and say, 'I never knew that. Thank you!' That's the highest compliment I can get. Once they learn it, they keep it for the rest of their lives; then they can understand the news much better.''