Sunday News Programs that Provoke

They are called “Meet the Press”, “Face the Nation” and “This Week with David Brinkley.” A journalistic acquaintance prefers to describe them as “The Yawn Shows.” But on Sunday, March 20, 1983 these interview programs were anything but dull; they were unusually vibrant and interesting.

Face the Nation’s guest was Dr. Sam Epstein, a University of Illinois specialist in toxic chemicals and their effect on humans. With a rapid, precise verbal delivery, Epstein was a tour de force, debunking industry myths about the modest impacts of toxic wastes and explaining the nature of evidence and probability sufficient to take preventive or corrective action against the polluters. He alluded to Europeans who were making fortunes out of recycling wastes or disposing of them properly. There was none of the traditional evasiveness of the customary political guests; only contemporary straight talk.

Next came Brinkley’s show. Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson were on, answering questions about a possible Black Presidential candidate running in the Democratic primaries to make the Black political agenda more visible and compelling. Again, articulate, no-holds-barred talk about the neglect and abuse of power. George Will, the voluble co-interviewer, seemed more than a little inhibited by this display of conviction. Perhaps he did not want to show his real feelings before two gentlemen who are his match in riposte.

On Meet the Press there was a rare duo format with Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Burt, alongside Retired Admiral Noel Gayler. The subject was arms control. Marvin Kalb asked Burt whether he had ever seen a nuclear explosion. Burt said he had not, but he fully realized the destructiveness of nuclear weapons. I suppose Kalb, a veteran State Department correspondent, was seeking an affirmation by the Reagan Administration of that obvious recognition. Admiral Gayler, an increasingly prominent advocate for nuclear arms reduction by the Soviets and the Americans gradually turning in their weapons for verifiable dismantling, was asked why he did not hold such views when he was chief of the Pacific fleet. Gayler noted that he had declared as early as 1956 that no one could win a nuclear war.

All in all, it was an engrossing Sunday TV public affairs programming. But was it just a deviation from the predominant fare of Congressional politicians, Administration officials, foreign government leaders and Presidential candidates? Will future Sunday programs return to the waffling, ambiguous, coy, interviewees questioned by frustrated reporters vainly searching for answers that make a little news? Maybe not. There are signs of competition and instability between the three shows which augur an improved delivery for viewers.

When David Brinkley replaced the Issues and Answers show on ABC with a one hour format, audience ratings increased. The questions were livelier, especially those by Sam Donaldson. Pressure mounted on George Herman’s Face the Nation and that venerable program will end this summer and be replaced with someone and something new. Perhaps the dull caution, the over-reliance on official source journalism as a criterion for selecting official guests, the emphasis on reflecting last week’s news instead of defining what is important or being ahead of that week’s newspaper news focus, will change.

In a time of transition and self-examination for these programs, the television audience has a better than ordinary chance for their suggestions to be read with greater interest. If you have any proposals for making these shows more interesting and, through their guests, more representative of what is going on in America, why not send NBC, CBS and ABC (all these networks are in New York City) a letter. There is precious little time on TV devoted to serious news interviewing to leave what there is now without your feedback.

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