News Veteran Shares His Views

After 40 years in the business, journalist John Chancellor reflects on the media and the world. AUTHOR INTERVIEW

THE bright television lights seem out of place in a hotel suite. But when you're NBC television commentator John Chancellor and you're on the road to talk about your book, everyone's invited to stop by, from notepad-wielding print journalists to local TV hosts. Mr. Chancellor, dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt, and red tie, waits patiently and chats amiably as the TV crew members check their equipment. When the tape begins to roll, his voice suddenly becomes deeper and louder, the well-modulated baritone so familiar to viewers. Could we get a reaction shot, he is asked? OK. A two-shot with the host? No problem: He looks as comfortable as the stuffed winged-back chair he's seated in.

Later, while the TV folks pack up their equipment, he escorts a reporter to a quiet corner of the Ritz-Carlton lobby to talk about why he wrote his book and what's happening with the media today.

Having spent more than 40 years in the news-gathering business, first on newspapers and then with NBC, he's seen a tremendous amount of change. And he expects to see even more.

``There are about six institutions of great substance and merit in the United States that are looking for a role,'' he says. ``There are three network evening newscasts and there are three big news magazines: U.S. News [& World Report], Time, and Newsweek.'' The advent of CNN's around the clock news, enhanced local news broadcasts, and other news sources has changed the nature of network newscasts.

``When I started anchoring in 1970 ... we had it all. We had that great surprise factor. We'd come on at 6:30 at night, and people'd say, `Gee, I didn't know that. Did you hear this? Hey, Martha, the news.'...

``Now we live in an entirely alternative news environment.... We've got to try to find a way to add value so that we do have a role in an environment that's really clogged with information.''

For Chancellor, that role will be different, but still important. ``I think the function of good journalism is to take information and add value to it,'' he says.

He sees print and television journalism living side by side for the foreseeable future. ``Television is a picture medium. What we used to say about television - I've said it for years - is that television is good at what a friend of mine calls `the transmission of experience.' And print is good at the transmission of fact. An intelligent population needs both.''

CHANGES of ownership at the networks have altered the nature of network news departments, he says. ``Up until the time GE [General Electric] bought NBC, I have always had an owner who lived above the store and who cared about the product.''

``When I went to work at NBC - that was 40 years ago - it had it's own symphony orchestra with Toscanini, it had its own opera company; it was wonderful. It was a big public-service organization that just happened to make billions of dollars in the course of that.''

``That's all changed. All the networks now are owned by people who don't live above the store, and they're demanding more profit out of the news divisions. God did not create news divisions, I think, to make profits.''

Today, satellite feeds and mini-cams can take viewers to the scene of nearly any important world event, a vast improvement in the immediacy of coverage. Yet, for Chancellor, ``It isn't as much fun as it used to be because we do fewer documentaries, and special events have been cut back.''

Not that he dwells on what was. ``My motto is that `I live in the present, not the past.' And then I always add that `the present isn't what it used to be.'''

Though Chancellor denies he's a candidate for public office - the travel involved in book promotion has cured him of campaigning, he says - he has written a book ``in anger and frustration'' that reads like a candidate's manifesto (see review below). It's a call to arms to America's citizens and political leaders.

``My grandsons are going to live in an America that I think you could not recognize right now,'' he says, ``a poorer America, a country dependent on foreign investment, a country without high technology, a country with bad roads and ruined bridges. I mean, this is going to be a terrible place if we don't do something about it.''

Chancellor blames our political leadership. ``All the presidents in that period from the death of Kennedy up to Ronald Reagan, ... I think - not to use too technical a term about it - I think they were all turkeys.''

The book, he hopes, performs a journalistic service by pulling together a ``kind of mural or panorama of what's wrong and what needs to be done.''

But why, he is asked, does the US need to stay No. 1, anyway? ``Suppose America can't solve its problems,'' he answers. ``Suppose we do really get down to No. 2 or 3 in the world. That will really transform the face of this country. You're going to have a lot of groups fighting over pieces of a smaller pie.''

But not if America is aroused. ``I think,'' he says, ``we need a kick in the butt.''

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