TV NEWS. AFTER WESTMORELAND. Two top TV news executives examine the effect of libel suits on network news practices, the role of the on-camera reporter, ways of giving viewers a greater voice, and the impact of televised docudramas
New York — WESTMORELAND v. CBS was only one in a series of lawsuits against television news organizations that have focused on news-gathering methods and editing distortions. Some have been resolved (Gen. William Westmoreland and CBS settled out of court with statements of mutual respect); some are still pending; some are on appeal. All, however, raise questions that should provoke a reexamination of news practices by network news executives. Last week, over breakfast, two of the prime movers in TV news -- Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, and Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS's ``60 Minutes'' -- discussed the future of network news. It was agreed that I would tape their comments.
Mr. Grossman, formerly president of PBS, has been at the helm of NBC News for less than a year, but he has already placed the network in the forefront of innovative news developments. Mr. Hewitt, a 36-year veteran of CBS News, has been executive producer of ``60 Minutes'' since 1968 and has brought it to its present position as one of the nation's top-rated shows.
Following is a condensed version of our discussion. Space limitations make it impossible to publish the entire transcript verbatim. As Mr. Hewitt told me on saying goodbye: ``You're going to have to work hard on this one. But a good reporter should be able to select, edit, and condense the conversation without distortion. We have to do it all the time in TV news.''
So here, in necessarily condensed form, is our conversation:
The Monitor: Now that the anguish of the Westmoreland trial is over, perhaps it's time to look ahead at the future of television news and public-affairs programming. How has the CBS-Westmoreland experience changed your thinking or your mode of operation?
Hewitt: I keep hearing about a chilling effect. I think it's a phrase made up by nonworking journalists who sit around and pontificate. As long as a CBS News broadcast, ``60 minutes,'' is consistently one of the most watched broadcasts in America and as long as the evening news on the three networks is watched by more than 60 percent of the viewing public every night, I can't see where there is any chilling effect among viewers.
The Monitor: But has there been a chilling effect on news broadcasters? Has it caused you to reexamine your methods?
Hewitt: With the exception of a handful of newspapers in America, no one does a better job than the networks do in covering news. I'm proud to work for an outfit that has the wherewithal and the know-how to do a broadcast like the Westmoreland broadcast on ``CBS Reports.'' I don't look back on it as anything but another very professional broadcast that may have violated some standards and practices at CBS News which I don't believe should ever have been codified. I think as long as you can say to yourself: ``I have never knowingly done violence to the truth. What I am putting on the air is what it purports to be,'' all those standards and practices rules are complete baloney.
The Monitor: Don, are you saying that the Westmoreland trial has had no effect on your mode of operation?
Hewitt: Quite frankly, the Westmoreland trial has had no effect on our mode of operation. The Galloway trial might have. [Galloway vs. CBS's ``60 Minutes'' was a trial in which Dan Rather was accused by a physician of not investigating accusations thoroughly enough. CBS won the case.] That trial made us more conscious of the fact that someday we may have to account to a jury and not just to the management of CBS. Since the Galloway trial, we've hired someone who does nothing but check the cut interview against the uncut transcript to make sure that nobody has in any way done a disservice to anyone. That came out of the Galloway trial, not the Westmoreland trial.
The Monitor: And you, Larry?
Grossman: I keep getting the same chilling-effect question all the time, and the answer is no. The biggest chilling effect on documentaries has not been the Westmoreland trial but ``60 Minutes'' itself. NBC for years has thrown documentary programs at ``60 Minutes'' and gone down to defeat. These special trials have very little relevance to the way we conduct our business. I don't mean to make light of them. Obviously they are major events in the contemporary history of the country, but they do not affect sound journalistic practices in which we hopefully engage. There has been absolutely no fallout within the NBC News division. And as far as I can tell within the news divisions of the other networks.
The Monitor: Do you feel that the networks -- all of them -- have adequate checks against a recurrence of the Westmoreland experience?
Grossman: There will always be human inadequacies and human failings. I disagree with Don so far as the need for guidelines and principles. We have them. Most of them are common-sense rules about doing what's right. I don't have any problem with them. And that's not to say that there are not times when we fall below those standards accidentally by human error.
Hewitt: Television news is the first journalistic entity in history to come with built-in checks and balances. There's a reporter, a producer, a tape editor, a cameraman, a soundman. There are too many people watching and looking over other people's shoulders for anybody to play fast and loose with the facts. A newspaper reporter goes out with a pad and a pencil, and the editor has no way of knowing if what the reporter reports is the truth, except that he trusts the guy.
The Monitor: Before we leave the Westmoreland case, can we discuss the two things which seemed to have intrigued most viewers who followed the trial: the complicated process of editing long tapes down to manageable TV length, and the fact that the on-camera reporter had actually done so little of the preparatory work.
Hewitt: Those are not invalid points for the public to note. They are things which worry all of us.
The Monitor: But will there be changes in those areas?
Hewitt: Our standards of editing are no different from the New York Times's standards. When the Times finds there is some news which they feel is not fit to print, it lands in the wastebasket and nobody ever hears about it. With us there is some guy rummaging around and saying, ``Wait a minute, how come this stuff is in the wastebasket and the other stuff is in the piece?'' . . . But the public has not yet decided whether the TV set gives them reports on events from correspondents or if it is just a conduit from their house to an event. At a political convention, every once in a while good reporters like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, or Peter Jennings run across a politician who says in effect: ``OK, kid, I'm taking over the camera for the next hour to say what I want to say and when I'm through I will give it back to you.'' It's as if I said to you, ``Art, I'm going to take over your notebook for the next hour and I want you to print everything in the Monitor just as I said it.'' That's what often happens to us. So we've got to edit.
The Monitor: That brings up the question of how much of the preparatory work the correspondent should be expected to do.
Grossman: Wherever possible the TV reporter should be on the scene, along with the producers, editors, and cameramen. It's not a good practice to have, in effect, a fly-in fireman who comes in after all the groundwork is done.
The Monitor: Do you have some rule which establishes that?
Grossman: No, we don't, because every program is done differently. But the practice at NBC News has been very much to do that. When John Chancellor is preparing, as he is now, a ``white paper'' on the press and the kinds of questions we are discussing here, he himself is writing it and researching it, along with many others. He will not come in right before a taping and read lines written for him.
Hewitt: I think if I were president of CBS News, the first thing I would do is get rid of those titles -- producer, director, et cetera. It's too show biz. David Merrick is a producer. Francis Coppola is a director. That's got nothing to do with what we do in news. What I would like to say on ``60 Minutes'' is not say we have 22 producers and five correspondents. I would like to say that we have 27 reporters. Five of them appear on the air because they know how to broadcast best. But all of them are reporters working on the same story. I think the whole idea of producers and directors is a get-in-trouble situation and I'd like to get rid of it. . . . A documentary historically has been 90 percent producer and 10 percent reporter. ``60 Minutes,'' and I dare say the magazine pieces that NBC and ABC do, come closer to being a 50-50 split between the producer and the correspondent on the story. But Mike, Morley, Harry, Ed, and Diane are the final arbiters on their own stories. They spend as much time in an editing room as they spend out in the field. . . . My reporters have to take responsibility for the stories they are putting on the air.
The Monitor: Was that true in the Westmoreland program? Did Mike Wallace spend as much time on the show as perhaps he should have?
Hewitt: First, let me remind you that the Westmoreland program was not on ``60 Minutes.'' [It was a ``CBS Reports.''] I wouldn't have done it exactly that way. It is very difficult for network news heads to pull somebody off a nightly news beat to go do a documentary, because their time is so split up it is difficult for them to focus on one thing.
The Monitor: Do you think that the correspondents themselves will be more wary of such assigments in the future?
Grossman: Long before the Westmoreland trial our correspondents knew they would never be called upon to work on a story in which they are simply given a script to read. They've got to feel they are a part of it, writing, researching, developing it.
The Monitor: Should there be some changes in the handling of libel cases to avoid long, drawn-out court sessions?
Grossman: First of all, I disagree with those who assert that public figures should not have the right to go into court and seek redress when they have been seriously harmed by a mischievous, malicious, inaccurate piece of reporting. They are citizens like everybody else, and if their reputation has been damaged they should have some recourse. And I think it is very important for the health of the press that there be recourse for something that we have done irresponsibly. At the same time, obviously these megabucks cases are in nobody's interest.
The Monitor: Do you believe such cases should go to juries, or should there be arbitration or some such settlement?
Grossman: It's been demonstrated that our jury system works. Of course sometimes the jury system goes awry, but that's what appellate courts are for. I think we need a system of libel law, but if you eliminate punitive damages and require the loser to pay the court, you would eliminate frivolous suits. And I think that's the key.
Hewitt: I think Judge [Pierre N.] Leval, who handled the Westmoreland case, was on the whole superb. But I think the minute Westmoreland's lawyer [Dan M.] Burt, [was reported to have] said words to the effect that we were about to see the dismantling of the CBS News organization, that case should have been thrown out. It was not to protect General Westmoreland. It was to get CBS News. The judge should have said: ``That's not what you can use my courtroom for. My courtroom is to give redress to somebody with a legitimate grievance.''
The Monitor: Do you see any new forms developing in television news?
Grossman: I never understand what people mean when they say new forms. The printed word is paper and ink and type, and you do it by offset, by handwriting, or on a computer, but it's the word still coming out on paper. Television is film or tape, pictures and sound. and somebody's idea of what's going on in the world. It can be 10 minutes or an hour, but the form is not the key. Content is the key. The only test is: Is that a vital, living piece of work? We've heard a lot of talk about the decline in the number of network documentaries. And there certainly has been a decline in numbers. And yet at the same time, ``60 Minutes'' is coming on every week with documentary pieces, the nightly news programs are doing longer and longer pieces, as opposed to headline and pure spot news. We are in the process of developing at NBC a new prime-time documentary series, with Roger Mudd as the anchor; PBS is doing ``Frontline,'' a weekly series of documentaries. TV news takes different times and sizes and shapes, but it is certainly in a healthy and exciting stage.
Hewitt: I'm reluctant to say this, because I don't want to give Larry a good idea. I proposed it to CBS, because the No. 1 problem on TV news today is the viewer who wants to talk back, and there's no place to do it. I think we should take about six hours per year and set up an ``op-ed'' unit, then give the public not only air time but the wherewithal to use it. Let's say Peggy Charren and ACT [Action for Children's Television] people who have complaints about children's programming on TV. Give them a first-rate producer, director, writer, cameraman, and soundman and tell them to make the best documentary for them and give it air time. The public vs. us is not a fair fight. We have the equipment, the personnel, the money. I say we should share that with the public. There should be a board that decides when there is a legitimate complaint about TV coverage; then it should be turned over to the op-ed unit.
The Monitor: Is anybody listening at CBS?
Hewitt: I don't know.
Grossman: I'm glad you don't have a copyright on that, Don, because such a program happens to be in the works here at NBC News. There's no question but that's a good and useful idea.
The Monitor: Do you feel docudramas are a threat to the believability of TV news?
Grossman: That's a complicated question. I'm not sure I know my own mind on that. Much of what constitutes drama is based on reality. The question seems to be, is it OK to dramatize it if it happened 20 years ago, but not if it happened last week? Certainly if it is presented in the guise of news it is unacceptable, and I have no ambivalence there. News should be fact and reality, and nobody should reenact anything. On the side of drama, I would not like to restrict anything. There's good drama and there's bad drama.
The Monitor: I see Don nodding vigorously and muttering ``Right on!''
Hewitt: Absolutely. First of all, too many TV columnists assume the audience is dumb and doesn't know the difference between a drama and a documentary. That's wrong. Audiences know the difference, especially since the networks go to great lengths to tell them. Did Abby Mann give me the correct scam in the recent CBS docudrama about the Atlanta murders? I don't know if Shakespeare gave me the correct scam about Richard III. . . . I know we have a particular problem -- the television set is a stage in everybody's living room, on which they watch John McEnroe, Tom Brokaw, Ed Asner, Dan Rather, Ronald Reagan, Peter Jennings, ``Dallas,'' and ``Dynasty.'' We have to be very careful that the demarcation line between reality and make-believe is made apparent. That's our responsibility. Once that line is made apparent -- and I think the networks have been very responsible in making that demarcation line apparent to the viewer -- our responsibility ends. . . . Which brings up another topic. TV critics beat up on television and don't tell their readers that their own publisher is often the guy they should be beating up on. Most of the television stations in the country are owned by newspapers -- [Washington] Post-Newsweek, Knight-Ridder, New York Times, L.A. Times.
The Monitor: What are you gentlemen proudest of in television news, and where do you think it fails?
Grossman: There is a lot of room for improvement. On many fronts, we do a woefully inadequate job. I think I am proudest of what people complain most about -- the structure of American television news. There are three television networks with major news departments who seek out thoughtful journalists who have strong standards of fairness. . . . But I feel we fall woefully short in our failure to reach out into uncharted areas. We tend to be followers rather than leaders, we go with trends. There's too little in-depth thought and too much concentration on action. Part of that, by the way, is probably the reflection of a decade of absolutely intense social change where there was plenty to report. . . . We may be in now for a very interesting change, with a much more stable world. Of course there will always be calamities, but it doesn't look as if we are going to have the enormous social upheavals which we saw in the last two decades. And that may allow our news efforts to move into a more thoughtful, seeking-out pattern of what's really going on. We do a very poor job on covering religion, the arts and culture, the architecture and style of life in our society. We're very good at covering wars and fires and calamities now. But I think we are in for a very interesting reexamination.
Hewitt: I agree more or less with what Larry just said. People say to me often: ``Don't you think there should be more news and public affairs on TV?'' My answer is: ``I am amazed there is any at all.'' . . . there is no requirement that the networks maintain the size of news organizations they do maintain, at a big loss. When TV started, it was a picture business. By all rights, it should have gone to Hollywood. If it had, do you think Harry Cohn and Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn would have done what Bill Paley and David Sarnoff and Leonard Goldenson did? They felt this terrific responsibility to use this medium to inform as well as to entertain. What I'm most proud of is that we do as much as we do. Sure we could do it a bit better. But there is no compelling reason for us to do as much as we do.
The Monitor: But there is a compelling reason -- public-service programming is required by the FCC in order for stations to retain their licenses.
Hewitt: A little bit. Larry could cut NBC news down to half of what it is and still satisfy the FCC requirements. But we don't do that. Every year we add more people. It's because our executives believe it's the right thing to do.
Grossman: I agree partially with Don on that. But there is also a lot of self-interest involved. Think of a TV network and what it is. There are many ways of distributing entertainment programs -- videocassettes, cable, DBS [direct-broadcast satellites]. Yet people watch television networks -- and they watch with the knowledge that if anything happens of any importance in the world they will hear about it instantaneously. . . . The public knows that even ``Dallas'' will be interrupted if something important happens. And it is in our selfish interest to continue to provide that kind of service.
The Monitor: Don, in what areas do you feel there is a need for improvement?
Hewitt: Simply in content. I don't see any fast changes coming. I think what we've got to do is become better and better at our craft as reporters.
The Monitor: So both of you feel that in the next decade of TV news we will be seeing basically a refinement of what we're seeing now.
Grossman: Hasn't that always been the case? With newspapers we've seen refinement. Superficial changes in graphics; but that's of secondary importance. Content is the answer. TV news will always be a centerpiece. Networks buy entertainment, but they produce news. News defines what a network is and how it is perceived. So it will always be the center of the network activity. -- 30 --