Hodding Carter III talks about television's role in government

Some Washington observers believe that there will be wildly eccentric changes in the deportment of Congress when the Senate begins televising its proceedings on a trial basis, June 1. Not Hodding Carter III, host of ``Capitol Journal,'' a weekly review of Congress which airs on about 145 PBS stations. ``Major figures in the Senate are already blow-drying their hair,'' he tells the Monitor. ``They live in a television world right now, rushing out to talk to the cameras right after a vote. Almost all senators have already become television human beings; so televising Senate proceedings won't change anything.

``Oh, there may be one or two congressmen who will start talking in shorter verse, but there are only a handful of senators left who treat the Senate as a place for extended debate anyway. Certainly the television coverage of the House has not affected the procedural rules, and I don't think it is going to affect very much in the Senate either.''

In a wide-ranging interview here in New York, where he has come to celebrate the first anniversary of his television show and to look for underwriters for a second year, Mr. Carter talks about his former job as State Department spokeman during the Carter administration, the benefits and hazards of moving between government and journalism, the popular images of Congress, and the caliber of people he has encountered there.

When asked if the televising of Senate sessions might not affect such traditional procedures as the filibuster, which might be too slow for television, Carter says, ``The filibuster is not going to die as long as there are minorities in the Senate who feel it is the one way they can get hold of, obstruct, or alter the course of legislation.

``Besides, a filibuster is an invaluable asset to a politician with his own constituency. He doesn't care if he looks silly to the people who oppose it. If he looks good to the people he's represenrting and he does that in a filibuster, then he'll go at it forever. Television will only help him there.''

According to Carter, there's only one aspect of the House TV coverage that has raised any concern. ``It has made the formal set-aside period for discussion under the House rules into a rather elaborate staged theater,'' he says. ``You have a series of two-minute statements that are usually pure propaganda. But for those who protest what a terrible thing that is, I offer the Congressional Record, which is often the receptacle of ungiven speeches or extended remarks and supposedly an official record of what happens in Congress. It's not. It's an official record of what people wish to have established as being their positions. Now [they] are simply televising the Congressional Record.''

Until 1977 Hodding Carter III was an award-winning editor and publisher of his family newspaper, The Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Miss. From 1977 through 1980 he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in the Carter administration, functioning as the department's spokesman during the Iranian hostage crisis. From 1981 to '84, he was anchorman and chief correspondent for PBS's ``Inside Story.'' Now, in addition to serving as host for ``Capitol Journal,'' he is a regular participant on ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley.''

He is concerned about ``Capitol Journal,'' because about half the PBS-affiliated stations do not air it at all, while the other half place it wherever they wish in their schedules, most often on Friday or Saturday evening, when many viewers are looking for entertainment. The series format includes interviews with congressmen, discussions with newsmen, background from experts.

``I conceive the show as a series of chapters in an ongoing book about Congress,'' Carter explains, ``in which none of the chapters is the final one, because that's the way it is in Congress. So we come back with new versions of the same chapter four or five times -- on the budget, the Contras, tax reform, for instance.

``But we are trying to break through the usual way that TV deals with Congress -- a fractionalized 20-second bite, which leaves you wondering what they are really doing with the issue. We try to go into depth in one concrete area on each program. That risks, of course, leaving a lot of people uninterested in the subject.'' He grins and shrugs his shoulders, as if to say ``So be it.''

As an ex-government spokesman, Carter has great compassion for those in similar jobs today. ``Bernard Kalb [the current State Department spokesman] is one of the great old guys of television news. He has flash and flair as a human being, and I often wonder how he deals with the necessity of living within the constraints of an administration that really doesn't want the State Department spokesman saying very much. He's really under wraps. To go to a state department briefing now is largely to hear, `I don't have anything for you on that subject today.' He's an old friend, a great guy, a bright man, and he may be enjoying it but I don't know how.'' Does Kalb know more than he is allowed to reveal?

``He knows. He's simply being told not to say anything. That's a perfectly legitimate position for the government to maintain.''

Carter, who has moved from private newspapering into government and back into electronic journalism, feels that such movement can be of use to both sides. ``I think rather than being what is often referred to as a subversion of honest journalism, it's of use to both the public and journalism. ``I have to work twice as hard now to be straight because everyone knows I have an old agenda. But the guy who never had that identification can get away with a lot more, disguising a series of beliefs, prejudices, what have you, behind the mask of objectivity that's not really there. Nobody is completely objective. So I welcome being heavily scrutinized.

``Also I take into my job now a lot deeper understanding of the government I am trying to cover than I had when I was simply a reporter on the other side. A lot of what I understand is that most of it is a lot less incoherent than you might think.''

Might Hodding Carter run for political office?

``My congressional district in Alexandria, Va., can't find a candidate to run against the Republican incumbent; so there has been a brief focus on me. But it was ridiculous. I have a contract, and I'm under moral obligation to stay where I am. I made that very clear from the beginning, but once a week now one of the regional papers will still write about me `lurking in the wings.' I mean, I quit lurking the first day I heard about it.''

He smiles and turns to immediate plans. ``Right now, we have no underwriter for `Capitol Journal,' and when the season ends in mid-January it will be all over unless a funder can be found. PBS and WETA [the producing station in Washington, D.C.] cannot afford to carry us alone beyond this season. That would be a shame because the program does more than add a large element of understanding of the specific issues under discussion. It helps viewers to understand this instrument of government called the Congress, which is probably the most caricatured single institution in the country. And, I think, unfairly so.

``I've gotten to know many congressmen, and, with rare exceptions, they are at least trying to think things through and responding in a real world sense and not just simply reacting to big bucks here or pressure there. They try hard. I believe it is important that a show like ours makes certain America know about it.''

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