According to John Chancellor, there's an old saying in Chicago journalism: ``You say your mother loves you? Check it out!'' Well, NBC's White Paper, A Portrait of the Press, Warts and All, by John Chancellor (NBC, Saturday, June 15, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) checks out American journalism. If some of the warts are left out, that's exactly what is wrong with American journalism -- there's never enough time, and sometimes the investigation is simply not thorough enough.
Mr. Chancellor's portrait is really an extended commentary that surveys the surface of the moon like a visitor from another planet, notes some of the craters without digging into them, then returns to Earth to herald its own accomplishment in spotting them at all.
Certainly there are solid Chancellor-ly observations about the things many Americans find objectionable -- insensitivity, arrogance, negativism, bias. These complaints have a fair amount of validity, and after some limited investigation, Chancellor ascribes the failings to one thing: Press people are human, too.
But on the whole, Chancellor finds little to complain about, and the impression one gets from viewing the White Paper is that all will be well as long as we -- the viewer and reader as well as the reporter and writer -- recognize that ``we're all in this together.''
Some of the important issues are never even touched on -- the growth of one-paper towns, the expanding multipaper publishing empires, the decontrol of television (which may affect the fairness doctrine), the need for Op-Ed access on TV, the role of cable and DBS (direct broadcast satellite) in broadcasting future.
But then again, it is only an essay, and perhaps we should be grateful that NBC News still finds time (albeit a Saturday night, when viewership is at its lowest) for such personalized and stylish news programming.
``We should remind the public more often that the press plays an important role in democracy'' is just about the main conclusion of Chancellor's literate, lighthearted, slightly nimble-fingered documentary. It engages your eyes with urbane and entertaining commentary while it glosses over some of journalism's ugliest warts. A chat with the co-producers
John Chancellor returned from his self-described ``nonscientific survey'' of American journalistic lairs with a major revelation.
Mr. Chancellor says: ``I left New York thinking that local television news was filled with glitz and hype, and I found some extraordinary changes around the country. After 30 years, local television news is finally beginning to mature. The agents who handle anchor people are now getting requests for mature and experienced journalists, men and women. Gray hair is no longer a difficulty, and more attention is being paid to professionalism. Local TV news has gone completely beyond the happy-talk idiocy that so damaged it a few years ago.''
Chancellor believes that one of the main reasons for the change is the fact that people who own TV stations have learned that they can put out better news coverage and still make a lot of money doing it. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that more and more the identity of local stations rests on their news programming. ``Prime-time programming on all networks is so similar that the image of the station is personified by its local news.''
Much of the documentary focuses on how newspapers work, rather than on industry problems, because Chancellor feels he simply couldn't fit it all into the hour. He tends to discount many of the surveys which report that TV is the major source of news for most Americans. ``Although the studies are made by responsible people, they must deal with changing attitudes and perceptions on the part of people who shift a lot. I'm not sure you can quantify how people respond to journalism in America.''
How does Chancellor react to people who say that television news focuses only on bad news?
``News is a chronicle of conflict and change. People need to know about conflict, and most of that is bad. They need to know about change, and some of that is good, but much of it is bad. So the very nature of news is not happy.''
Chancellor, who does ``NBC Nightly News'' commentary every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, says he watches ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' whenever he can, and admires the interviewing skills of Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, David Brinkley, and Ted Koppel. He does not think very much of Cable News Network, however. ``It's good electronics, but not journalism. No choices, no editing,'' he says. ``The essence of journalism is thought and selectivity. CNN just focuses the camera, and that is picture taking rather than journalism.''
The co-producer of the documentary, Tom Tomizawa, says, ``I came back with a greater appreciation for the profession of journalism and the people who practice it. I was cynical about it at first, but I changed my mind after talking to many professional journalists and observing them at work.''
Mr. Tomizawa believes the documentary accomplishes its main purpose, which is ``to show nonprofessionals how newspapers and TV news shows are put together. If we can help viewers understand what is involved in making decisions, they will also understand that journalists are human beings.
``And so, sometimes wrong.''