If the American public ever needed proof that network television is unprepared to serve the purposes of a democracy, they had it in spades last Tuesday evening. That night, in an all-out effort to salvage his plan for funding the Nicaraguan contras, President Reagan addressed the nation. His speech was widely announced in advance. And this time the American public, sometimes criticized for its indifference to foreign affairs, was primed. But the networks refused to carry the speech. No news there, they said: All he's doing is rehashing old arguments. So while the nation hovered on the eve of a historic vote - one that in the end turned the tide on a highly controversial sector of American foreign policy and handed Mr. Reagan a smarting defeat - the networks plowed ahead with their sitcoms.
Why? Were they biased, self-serving, irresponsible - or just lacking in judgment?
Of the four explanations, I favor the last. I don't really think political bias played a large role - although the networks' refusal to give viewers access to the President's pro-contra views ultimately served the same end as Sandinista censorship has done in Managua. But networks are complex beasts. To label their executives as Reagan-bashing liberals - as the conservative right often does - is to oversimplify the mix of intelligence, bottom-line savvy, and finger-to-the-wind adroitness required to run such businesses.
The networks may, however, be self-serving. Two facts are relevant here: that a 30-second prime-time advertisement can bring in $200,000, and that a presidential address carries no advertising.
Which is why the issue of irresponsibility arises. Despite financial sacrifice, the networks generally stand ready to serve the public interest on special occasions. When a space shuttle explodes or a State of the Union speech arises, the networks are there - and generally do a good job.
This time they simply weren't there - despite the fact that the Central America issue appears to have more radicalizing power, more capacity to bring American protesters into the streets, than anything since Vietnam. To overlook that fact is to display surprisingly bad judgment - or, to put it in journalistic terms, poor news sense.
Nowhere was that bad judgment more baldly stated than by ABC newsman Ted Koppel. With an irony that should have left ABC officials gasping with embarrassment, he announced at the start of his Tuesday evening ``Nightline'' that the networks (including his own) had deemed the President's speech not newsworthy. He then proceeded to devote his show to a detailed discussion of the issue, including large swatches of the President's speech. No news there, announced one of the nation's best newsmen, as he focused directly on what he knew instinctively to be the most newsworthy issue of the day.
To such a charge, of course, ABC may well cry, ``Foul!'' Mr. Koppel's show was about the coming contra aid vote, not about the content of the President's speech. True. But news judgment extends far beyond content. It includes timing, context, impact. News is not always the saying of something new. Who, after all, found anything ``new'' in what George Bush and Dan Rather said to each other in their now-famous CBS television interview last month? Yet how long would a network executive keep his job for deciding that such an exchange was unnewsworthy? What Reagan said Tuesday night was less important than the fact that he said it.
But what exactly did he say? Millions of voters will never know. Fortunately for millions of others, however, there's more to life than the broadcast networks. Cable News Network, some local PBS affiliates, some local television stations, and some radio stations carried the speech live. The next day it hit the front page of the nation's newspapers, whose editors clearly know a news story when they see one.
So should presidents be able to preempt prime time whenever they wish? Clearly not. A free press needs to be free to say no. But the users of the public airwaves need to be especially mindful of their responsibilities to the populace. Otherwise, they might as well admit that their primary business is simply to entertain for profit, assert that their coverage of news is not a duty but simply a favor, and declare that whether or not the public is well informed is really not their business. And that would be a sad day for democracy.
A Monday column