Moderator Paul Duke takes network political coverage to task

''The most significant aspect of political reportage so far this year is how wrong it has been,'' says Paul Duke, moderator of PBS's Washington Week in Review (Fridays) and host of The Lawmakers (at varying days and times, depending upon local scheduling).

''Reporters have been so wrong in their assessments - first there was this general feeling that John Glenn was going to be the chief challenger. Then, there were all those stories that Walter Mondale had it locked up. And then Gary Hart came from nowhere and nobody recognized that in advance. Soon they were all writing that Mondale looked like he was going to lose it . . . until he came back. It all underscores how careful and cautious we should be as journalists.''

Mr. Duke, who was an Associated Press correspondent in Washington, a Wall Street Journal political reporter, and an NBC congressional reporter before he came to PBS to host ''Washington Week,'' is chatting with me in the New York headquarters of PBS; he has come from Washington on a campaign to save ''The Lawmakers'' from extinction, because its funding runs out at the end of June.

Duke's ''Washington Week'' - a round-table discussion of the week's news by a revolving panel of Washington print correspondents - holds the record for the longest continuous run on PBS. ''The Lawmakers,'' in its fourth year on PBS, blends on-location Washington coverage, videotaped interviews, and profiles with analysis, commentary, and an inside look at Congress.

Mr. Duke is incensed at the tendency of the commercial television networks to predict winners of elections before polling is complete.

''It is unbelievable arrogance on the part of the networks. In attempting to get the story before all the facts are in, they are alienating many Americans. Under the First Amendment, you can't have any kind of restriction on the press, but I think the networks should exercise some common sense and restrict their own exit polls or at least not report the results until the polls have closed.''

Mr. Duke says that ''Washington Week'' has been accused of bias in both directions - left and right. ''It makes me feel we really must be doing our job.''

What makes a good panel member on ''Washington Week''?

''The qualities vary. In the case of Charlie McDowell, it's his brand of friendly humor, with Rick Smith it's his razor-sharp smarts, and with Haynes Johnson, it's his vitality and enthusiasm.

''Harry Ellis, however, is a kind of epitome of the credible, gentlemanly reporter, somebody everybody trusts, everybody believes. If Harry says it, you know it's true.''

Has the show ever tried to use electronic journalists?

''Oh, one or two, but by and large our format calls for print journalists. Probably the most interesting thing about the show is that here's a program which succeeds by defying all of the modern edicts for television success. We don't use electronic razzle-dazzle, we don't use film or tape clips of news events, we don't use glamorous television reporters. We do use intelligent . . . people who have the ability to articulate about subjects in which they have some expertise, who can converse easily with one another. I think it is this air of informed informality which makes the program a success. A lot of people regard us as friends who just come into their homes on Friday night.''

Mr. Duke is disturbed over ''The Lawmaker's'' current predicament. ''The program is a hit - both the critics and audiences say they love it. But still we go from financial crisis to crisis, since we can't find underwriters even though it is agreed that Congress is the greatest show on earth.''

According to Mr. Duke, Congress itself loves the show, because it helps to improve the institution's image. ''But that's not the reason I do the show - I think the networks over-cover the White House and under-cover Capitol Hill. 'Lawmakers' is the only program of its kind, the only show which lets the people know what is really going on in Congress. And we do it with flair and wit.''

''However,'' says Duke, who suddenly appears crestfallen, ''when the funding runs out at the end of June, unless we find money elsewhere, it will end.'' Some observers feel that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has an obligation to step in and help preserve this unique show -- and perhaps that will happen.

But there are no such problems for ''Washing Week in Review.'' Close to 300 PBS stations carry it (as against 200 who carry ''The Lawmakers''), and its under-writer, Ford Motor Company, assures it of solid future funding.

''A lot of potential underwriters don't seem to realize that PBS now has a solid audience -- it's not the narrow educational system it was 15 years ago, [ which is] why out 'Washington Week' audience is larger than the 'Today' show audience, bigger thatn the 'Meet the Press' audience. The potential audience for 'The Lawmakers' just boggles my mind.''

And if Paul Duke has anything to do with it, those figures will soon boggle the mind f a commercial under-writer, too.

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