Hodding Carter's 'Inside Story' turns an eagle eye on the media; . . . . and the commercial networks offer a fall menu of escapist fare
New York — Nobody who watched television news shows during the Iran hostage crisis can forget Hodding Carter in his role as State Department spokesman. Despite the ticklish diplomatic situation, this veteran Mississippi newspaper editor (the Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Miss.) exuded concern and honesty.
Now, in his third season as host/correspondent of ''Inside Story'' (PBS, Thursdays, 8-8:30 p.m.), Mr. Carter is trying to bring to his investigations of the nation's communications media the same kind of concerned honesty. Although some observers have felt that in the past the program did not quite live up to the very high expectations for it, this season, operating for the first time on adequate funding (from GE), ''Inside Story'' seems to be functioning exceptionally well as a kind of ombudsman between the people and the press.
I chatted with Mr. Carter recently in his rented offices within the Children's Television Workshop complex, across Broadway from Lincoln Center.
Mr. Carter wants to make certain that ''Inside Story'' does not turn into a trade program. ''We're aiming at a general audience which cares about what the media are doing,'' he says. ''There are a lot of professional news people working on the show and we have to constantly push ourselves away from doing pieces for the business, inside stories for insiders.''
Two weeks ago Mr. Carter focused on new communications technology and the possible effects of deregulation with such guests as former FCC commissioner Dean Birch, FCC chairman Mark Fowler, Cable News Network's Ted Turner, US Sen. Robert Packwood, and US Rep. Timothy Wirth. In line with Mr. Carter's plan to come up with some sort of determination whenever a critical question is posed, the program concluded that none of the new electronic miracles or the trend toward deregulation have yielded much more diversity for viewers in news and information pro-gramming.
Yesterday (May 19) Mr. Carter looked at the challenges facing Robert Maynard, the first black owner-editor of a metropolitan daily, the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune. And next week he will take his traveling-ombudsman show to Centralia, Pa., to check on the effect of press coverage of that city's long-burning underground fire.
Mr. Carter believes there is a public demand for accountability by the media. ''The public wants to know that there is a watchdog watching the press. There seems to be a running hostility out there about what is perceived as a lack of accountability, a lack of responsiveness in the press.''
Mr. Carter says there was personal accountability when he published his newspaper in Greenville. ''When I wrote an editorial, the people who objected could stop me in the street and complain. But now with modernization has come homogeneity. There are no more idiosyncratic editors around. Readers have no recourse except to the letters column or, in some cases, an op-ed page. But it's laughable when you consider how few people can be heard that way.
''Now, editors and publishers are simply fellows on their way up in the corporate system . . . Gannett or Knight-Ridder or whatever. Three years maximum on the job and then up to a higher corporate job.''
Although Hodding Carter was one of the original board members of the National News Council, he feels that it has not lived up to its promise as a kind of ombudsman. Little attention has been paid to this organization formed to make the nation's press more accountable. But he has hopes for better days for the council, now that Richard Salant, former CBS News chief, has taken it over.
''Listen,'' he says intently, leaning forward in his chair to make his point. ''There are several halting starts towards self-examination, but I sure would like to see a lot more of them. In the meantime, I hope we are playing a part in the process of increasing accountability.
''I believe in ombudsmen, op-ed pages, the National News Council, (the ABC news program) 'Viewpoint' - every single institutional avenue that has opened up recently which makes the media more accountable to the people.
''It's our castle, all right, as somebody else may have said, but we ought to have more visiting days.''
''Inside Story,'' in its third season, is offering TV viewers a weekly ticket to the castle. 'Let Them Escape'
Escapism is the special of the day on television's 1983-84 programming menu.
Last week all three commercial networks released their first versions of next season's schedules. Although it was only CBS that bade farewell to Archie Bunker , probably all the networks are bidding farewell for some time to come to the hard-edged, topical, controversial kind of series programming which ''All in the Family'' had come to symbolize.
Of the 22 new series announced for all three networks (9 from NBC, 8 from ABC , and 5 from CBS), 8 seem to be straight-out soft-form comedies, with most of the 14 other shows promising to be variations of escapist action-adventure dramas. Only a few seem to promise to cope with day-to-day reality.
Why? Well, when one looks at the state of the economy and the unemployment rate, the answer is obvious. But the CBS entertainment programming president, Donald (Bud) Grant, said it best to me. ''This is a rough time for most people, and they turn to television for entertainment and relief from the unpleasant realities of daily life. Most of the new series try to give them that. Call it escapism if you will, but our new schedule certainly tries to give viewers what they need most from TV at this time.''
NBC's entertainment programming chief, Brandon Tartikoff, told me basically the same thing, although he stresses that he believes the NBC schedule is balanced between realistic comedies and drama on the one hand and fantasy and romantic shows on the other.
''We don't want to go to the well with a whole schedule of the 'A-Team,' '' he said. ''But we believe there is place on the schedule for such an escapist show, just as there is a place for 'St. Elsewhere,' which is certainly a realistic drama.''
Here are some of the new shows and their story lines, as described by the networks themselves. You decide for yourself how escapist they are:
''We Got It Made'' - Two young bachelors hire a beautiful housekeeper for their apartment and cope with the objections of their girlfriends.
''Mr. Smith'' - An unusual orangutan with a high IQ and the power of speech works as a special consultant for the US government.
''Jennifer Slept Here'' - The ghost of a Hollywood movie star befriends a teen-age boy when he and his family move into her former home.
''Manimal'' - A criminologist is able to transform himself into various animals in order to solve crimes.
''After M*A*S*H'' - Carries on the famous madcap action as members of the team adjust to civilian life.
''Whiz Kids'' - Mystery adventures of four suburban high-school freshmen who are computer buffs and use their knowledge to crack mysteries.
''Just Our Luck'' - A romantic comedy about a TV weatherman and a swinging genie.
''Lottery'' - Real-life rags-to-riches fantasies of lottery-ticket winners.
''Webster'' - A honeymooning ex-football player and his new mate unexpectedly become adoptive parents.
All this is not to say that the networks are not also scheduling some shows that face up to life these days. NBC is premiering ''Boone,'' an Earl Hamner (''The Waltons'' creator) series about country music in Nashville in the 1950s; ''Bay City Blues,'' which focuses on ordinary working-class folk who are involved with the local minor league baseball team; and ''For Love and Honor,'' which follows the lives of recruits at a military base.
CBS copes with its version of reality in ''Navy,'' which concerns a widower naval base commander challenged by the military as well as his relationships with his three daughters.
ABC's main claim to reality in its new series is ''Hotel,'' starring Bette Davis, which concerns ''an elegant hotel that plays host to a tide of humanity from royalty to newlyweds to con men.''
This is reality?
So, although there will still be many changes as the shows prepare to go into production now for a late-September start, what we already have is a preview of the basic philosophy behind the new schedules. It's a kind of electronic version of Marie Antoinette's ''let them eat cake'' dictum: ''Let them escape.'' Paying for time
When CBS aired the Arthur Miller TV drama Playing for Time a couple of years ago, the commercials on the show were handled very delicately. There was an attempt to see that they did not interrupt the flow of the drama, that the products being advertised were appropriate to a concentration-camp story.
Last Tuesday, when this Emmy-winning show was repeated on CBS, I watched again. I was appalled to find that the impact of this superb, complex drama was almost totally lost amid the seemingly never-ending flow of 30-second commercials.
The height of bad taste was reached toward the end of the drama, when the Russians were approaching and one of the inmates cried out that everyone might be gased before they could be liberated. At this point came a commercial interruption - for a patent medicine called Gas-X.
Greed on the part of CBS apparently won out over tastefulness and even good showmanship.