TV Journalists: `Guests in the Viewers' Home'

Rod MacLeish is a Monitor Channel commentator on news and culture. Below are excerpts from an interview with Monitor staff writer David Holmstrom.

What is your responsibility to a viewer?

We are guests in the viewer's home. And one of the things you have to remember is that you're not speaking to millions of people; you're speaking to two or three people sitting in their living room. We are rather unusual guests in that we can be disinvited by a flip of the channel. Our obligation is first of all to behave with the courtesy expected of a guest. Second, we owe the viewer a house present, to do our best to explain issues in depth, to tell the viewers what we know honestly and with as much vigor and intelligence as we can muster.

How well does TV explain the ``why'' of events?

TV, by the nature of the medium and its immediacy, has not fully exploited its opportunities in explaining the ``why.'' And one of the things the Monitor Channel wants to do is become the ``why'' channel. McNeil-Lehrer (on PBS) does a wonderful job and some of the Sunday programs are outstanding in going beneath the surface, but TV, because of its capacity to be immediate, tends to be immediate. We hope to go deeper.

After 30 years of reporting and writing, what looks promising to you in spite of society's problems?

I think we're going to enter the 21st century as a more politically mature and just society. The election that lies immediately ahead of us is going to be a very promising one because it's not going to be an election about personalities. It's going to be election about issues and ideas, and I think that's wonderful because it brings the voter back into the choice process.... The ailments of our society, which are serious problems, (are not) signs of failure, but an immense change taking place withi n the framework of a society whose structure was designed in the 18th century. I think we are in a period of having our social structure catch up with our demographic reality. I don't think America has been fatally self-wounded; I see all kinds of signs of political rebirth.

How does journalism differ from history?

Nobody can analyze an event completely and instantly. The great question is, when do I have to get to the ``why''? Those of us who are TV news commentators sometimes get criticized for doing instant analysis of the president's speeches. What the critic doesn't realize is that we've had the speech and studied it, and checked it against recent events; so we know the contents. The question is, when do you have to explain the ``why''? If there is a terrible event caused by human misjudgmen t, we can't explain how it happened the moment after. We can within a matter of days or weeks or months explain it. If it takes days, weeks, or months, its journalism; if it takes years, its history. Everybody thinks that because TV can show events so immediately that it has to explain them immediately. It can ultimately explain; we can do the same kind of digging and backgrounding and hard work as our print colleagues do, and come up with explanations later.

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