Robert MacNeil

What Shapes Who Shapes What We Know

VTR Date: January 3, 1986

Guest: MacNeil, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert MacNeil
Title: “What Shapes Who Shapes What We Know”
VTR: 1/3/86

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I begin that way each week, end always as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck. Edward R. Morrow’s words, of course, his electronic sign-off. And there isn’t a week where some such echo of his presence doesn’t remind me how little we knew then, a generation ago, or know now about the compelling ideas and attitudes of those who in print or on the air define for us what the world is really like, tell us what it is that becomes in time the essence of our private and then our public opinion. For whatever commentary it is about the presumptions, the beliefs, the ideals that inform journalists’ work in interpreting the world to us, that largely is left at best unnoted until after they leave the field of battle. So that really am pleased to have with me today a man who stands so well in Morrow’s tradition and is willing to share with us his personal reflections on American journalism, particularly in its electronic mode. Newsman Robert MacNeil is Executive Editor and Co-anchor of Public Broadcasting’s distinguished MacNeil/Lehrer news hour. And I do thank you for joining me today.

MacNeil: It’s a pleasure.

Heffner: And I guess, Mr. MacNeil, I don’t have to drag you kicking and screaming into a statement of broadcasting’s strength, power, and influence in our lives.

MacNeil: I think it’s obvious. And when a large majority of the American people continue to tell survey takers that they get most of their information about this nation and the world from television, I think it’s obvious. And I think it is…if you look at almost any American institution over the last quarter century it has in some way been modified, altered, reshaped because of television. I think it has not only permeated our information media and altered the print media who have to compete with it, but that it has very thoroughly, some would think even insidiously, permeated all aspects of American life.

Heffner: Well, it is that word insidiously that I want to pick up on. I was going to ask you, for good or for bad, the extension on this…

MacNeil: Good and bad. I mean what’s true of television is true of most manifestations of life in this country. You can see the very best, the most, the things that come closest to the ideals of the people who founded this country. And you can find the very worst. There is everything that is noble in this country and at the other end of the spectrum and almost any institution there’s everything that’s schlocky. And that’s television.

Heffner: But what’s the major part of television?

MacNeil: Oh, I think the major part is schlocky. I think it is…it has turned, it has converted a miraculous almost miraculous medium of communication 90 percent into a vehicle for persuading people to buy things or even more crass in a way for delivering audience bound and gagged and virtually helpless to advertisers. And using as an instrument whatever it can devise as programs that would best attract those people.

Heffner: How has that impacted up on your field, electronic journalism? That aspect of broadcasting itself?

MacNeil: Well, if the principal motive of what you’re’ doing is to attract the largest possible audience in a time segment, then you are going to do to the commodity you’re broadcasting whatever is necessary to attract the largest possible audience. So the news, then, becomes a commodity. It becomes…it becomes something to be shaped or reworked or modified or played around with or hyped or whatever as suits the main purpose which is to get the maximum possible audience.

Heffner: Are you now describing basically network broadcast news?

MacNeil: I am describing one major influence on network and local television news across the country. The other being the tradition you mentioned at the outset of the program. And there is a terrible tension between these two. The people who do these programs, as you know and I know because we know them, the John Chancellors and the Brinkleys and the Rathers and the Jennings are all as good newsmen as dedicated journalists as you will find in any of the great newspapers and newsmagazines in the country. But they are in a death grip battle and tug of war if you like with the other purpose of the medium which is to attract the maximum audience. So what happens Is a very uneasy compromise. Morrow himself said that television journalism had grown up as an incompatible, I think, I’ve forgotten the exact words, incompatible combination of show biz, advertising, and news.

Heffner: In fact I was reading, obviously reading, through The People Machine and The Right Place at the Right Time, your two splendid books here. Somebody said to me the other day, somebody who indeed had studied for and had practiced as a clergyman, he said, Heffner, you have such a simple task. You don’t have to do much research because you never are nasty to your guests, so you don’t have to know what to dig out. The fact of the matter is that on occasions I do read a book, but in reading the The People Machine, your first book, I came upon that quote. You said, you wrote, “In 1958 (now this is a decade later that you’re writing), In 1958 Edward R. Morrow, the most renowned of electronic journalists, said that broadcast news had grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news.” A decade later you wrote, “Although it has grown immensely in power and prestige, television journalism still combines those three ingredients and the combination is still incompatible.” Do you still think it still is now two decades later?

MacNeil: True. True. I continue to think and I’m almost a lone voice in the wilderness on this. No, I flatter myself too much. There are plenty of other people who feel this way. There are a few of them who are able to get away with making a career saying it, but I think it’s outrageous that news is interrupted by commercials. I think that’s just absurd. You have people talking about serious matters and the real world and then deliberately without any pause or break something crashes in which is not only totally irrelevant and distracting, but from such another mindset even given that the American public is probably conditioned over the years to put or to receive commercials through a different part of its serious mind than it receives other messages. Nonetheless, it just seems to me to fight the very purpose of what you’re doing. It’s just an absurdity to me that…that’s just part of it. The other…I see no reason why the news, of course it’s probably too late now, but why the news could not have been supported by advertising monies in another way. But if you have a half-hour program, you’ll break half-way through and say we’re going to pause now and have some commercials and then come back or do it at the beginning and end of the program. The people will want to watch the news and they won’t want to watch the news less because the commercials have been bunched up at the beginning and the end rather than interrupting their concentration all the way through.

Heffner: You do, indeed, derive from another tradition. (Inaudible). The Canadian tradition?

MacNeil: Yes.

Heffner: Don’t you feel that one might say that our tradition literally is appropriate to the rest of American life, our tradition of news presentation?

MacNeil: I don’t know. I mean with some exceptions I don’t think people delivering other serious messages in this culture, serious messages, leaving aside trivial messages, but serious messages in this culture, willy-nilly interrupt in the most…in the strangest places what they’re saying with appeals to buy this or that. And I’m thinking of sermons or political speeches, lectures in universities, and things that we would regard as communication intended to inform or enlighten or help people understand the world.

Heffner: But communications not based upon outside support, commercial support. That’s the tradition. I mean we perhaps are not as fortunate as the Canadians were or the British were to start with Auntie BBC. Never have to worry about a dime. But you know…

MacNeil: Until today…

Heffner: Until today. Well, not that recently either. Let me ask, are you immune in public broadcasting from the pressures of numbers?

MacNeil: No. no. we…if we don’t achieve a reasonable size of audience, now nobody puts the same kind of limit on that number or nobody says it has to be a certain amount, but obviously if there aren’t people watching then the public television stations around the country that carry us are not going to find us useful vehicles for them.

Heffner: What do you mean, useful?

MacNeil: Useful to…they want to attract a kind of critical mass of viewers in their community in order to seem viable.

Heffner: And viable is getting back to dollars.

MacNeil: And viability gets back to staying on the air. It gets back to being there to attract people so that you can give them an alternative kind of television. You don’t mention dollars, I do Well, obviously it costs money to put television programs on the air. And obviously our program costs money. I’m not holier-than-thou about this. I understand the realties, and we all make concessions to make things…to make things attractive enough so that a certain number of people are likely to watch. The point is where you draw the line on the concessions you’re making.

Heffner: Where do you draw the line? That’s always the question.

MacNeil: And many people in the business would think that I draw it at such an extreme or that we draw it at such an extreme point that we aren’t’ in the real world. I think form the security of my ivory tower at that end of the spectrum that they draw it too far the other way. And I think that as the competition intensifies among the three networks as they compete more and more for a share of a shrinking audience, because the audience for network news is going down as their people are drawn to other things and as they’re breaking in a new generation of anchormen and trying to establish their credibility in sort of Cronkite mold, and as the costs of those new broadcasts rise ferociously, the competition gets fiercer and fiercer and the news…the temptation to make the news more and more a sort of show biz commodity grows.

Heffner: Do you think that…you said that this temptation to make it a show biz commodity demeans the medium, it demeans news on…electronic news. Do you think there’s any other way out if we are to maintain truly a mass medium approach to journalism?

MacNeil: Sure. Sure.

Heffner: Mass.

MacNeil: Yes.

Heffner: Massest.

MacNeil: Yes.

Heffner: I think that it underestimates the intelligence and the hunger for information of the American public to assume that all they will accept is what is currently given them by commercial television as news in the news bulletins. H.L. Mencken told us what will happen to someone who underestimates that intelligence. They’ll never go broke.

MacNeil: Yeah, I know. Was it Mencken or was it Ziegfeld who said…

Heffner: I always thought it was…one of the two.

MacNeil: One of…maybe they both said it. They way I heard it is nobody ever went broke underestimating…

Heffner: Underestimating. Absolutely.

MacNeil: Well, okay. Go broke. Don’t go broke. But it is necessary. It is really necessary in commercial television to make the news the same kind of profit center that…or to attempt to make the news the same kind of profit center that other programs are which have other purposes. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I think that, for instance, the network, the journalists in the network have wanted for years to enlarge their program to one hour feeling that to try and cram the world into half an hour, actually twenty-two minutes, of news time every night distorts, trivializes, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the information today. And they have been stymied by their affiliate stations which don’t want to surrender that additional half-hour because surrendering it would mean that they make less money. I think that a serious but easy to understand news program of one hour in early prime time if one network would jump to do it would get much higher ratings than they expected would get.

Heffner: One with lots of pictures?

MacNeil: Of course with lots of pictures. Television…I’m not fighting pictures. Television is a visual medium. It has…one of its unique properties is the ability to transport you to another place and give you a sense of shared experience with other peoples in the world.

Heffner: That business about with pictures is something I’d like to pick up with you but given the fact that I’ll have to try and get you to come back another time, there are a couple of other things that I want to get at immediately. In reading The People Machine and The Right Place at the Right Time, I couldn’t help but focus on your concern about expression of opinion. You’ve been a very lucky gent. You’ve been able to be MacNeil and be on the air both for many, many years now and give expression quite frequently to, in a modest and appropriate way, to your own attitudes. HBO did a program, I guess you can only call it a docudrama on Edward R. Morrow…

MacNeil: I would only call it.

Heffner: Fair enough. And I noted when looking at it the other day that there was, as I scribbled my notes, Morrow says you can’t’ make radio into a privileged pulpit. And I wondered what you think about that particularly in terms of Morrow’s McCarthy broadcast, particularly in terms of your own feeling that it is not totally inappropriate for a news person to give expression to his own basic ideas. Not to take political sides.

MacNeil: Well, to be honest with you, I am all over the place on this issue. And the older I’ve become and the more responsibility I’ve assumed in national broadcasting that is a broadcaster who is seen nationally the more cautious I’ve become about wanting to express my own opinion on individual issues. Part of it I think I can honestly say is a growing sense of modesty about the worth of my own opinion because the more I know about issues, the more I realize I don’t know. And my opinion isn’t any more important than anybody else’s. a growing sense that the audience of today is tired of punditry. It’s had more than a generation, if you include the radio, two generations of what they regard as punditry. Because they’re inclined to accuse even the careful disseminators of opinion these days with pundits. Just people who are paid to deliver their opinion. And I think the audience doesn’t want it. I think the audience increasingly wants to be given the facts and a range of opinions and to be left to make up its own mind. I think that’s one of the strong currents in, least that I have perceived, in the mind of the television viewing public these days. But I’ve gone through sort of metamorphosis on this, a change of heart about this. When I first began in radio which was in Canada in a commercial radio station and while I was going to college because there wasn’t anybody else around and they were fairly active in this little station in the news business, they let me do the news on Sunday morning and I did a weekly commentary on the news. I was twenty-one or something. And I laid left and right with my opinions. I delivered myself of anything that came into my head. Without a qualm. I would hate to think that any of those broadcasts were preserved now. Because I didn’t know anything. But the less I knew, the more I uttered my own opinions. Later on, I worked for a wire service, where for five years I learned their tradition which was you couldn’t let anything leak of your own opinion into it. You were there as a disembodied mechanic in a way converting the raw material of life into a formula that would be printed by newspapers and broadcast stations. That was Reuters in London. Later when I got to NBC, I found in those days I was largely a radio correspondent overseas, television, just beginning in television, I found that the barriers were more permeable, if you like. That a certain amount of opinion could leak through. And when there were occasions in my reporting, when I made it quite clear what I felt about things. Then the Vietnam war came along and I felt very strongly about what Vietnam war and I felt very strongly that it was stupid, utterly wrong, a waste of American resources and life it was wrong-headed, the whole conception of the thing. And gradually as I felt more and more strongly about that, I let some of that show particularly in a radio series that NBC ran called Emphasis in those days which were little essays. And you could say on radio things that you wouldn’t have been able to say on television. And I left NBC and went to the BBC and the first couple of things I did for the BBC were documentary, for a documentary news program. They were pretty clearly anti-war in tone. They were pretty undisguised, if you like, editorials, anti-war editorials. I didn’t intend it to be that. I didn’t set out to do that. That’s what they were. And I remember saying, in fact I said in this book in my self-righteous state of mind at the time, that it was wrong for people like Chet Huntley and David Brinkley who had enormous followings in the country if they felt strongly about the war not to tell their viewers because it was part of their sort of public, civic duty.

Heffner: And today?

MacNeil: Today I think that was a…I think it was two things. I think it was far too rash in judgment. I think going back to what Morrow said that it isn’t’ appropriate to use one of three national networks if you are the person who is trusted every night to deliver the facts to people then to suddenly on one issue turn to them and say now here is what I feel.

Heffner: Was Morrow one that in your estimation (inaudible) McCarthy?

MacNeil: No. no. because I think there are exceptions. The other side of it is that there are exceptions. And Cronkite who was at the peak of his career the most credible, the most trusted man in America decided at the time of the Tet offensive which happened just before this book was published that in effect he had enough. And made pretty clear what his opinion was. I think there are times of crisis in national life when any man who feels that he thinks it clearly, sees it clearly, and has a strong conviction of what it should be, has a right to say what he thinks if he has that pulpit. His employers also have a right to fire him. And say we don’t want you using our national network as a pulpit. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule in this, but there’s another reality in all this. American journalism used to be, when it was largely local and in print, very hot, very partisan, very opinionated. That was the tradition. Newspapers were owned or supported by political factions or people with strong political views and they systematically excluded the views of their opponents. And the news columns were not reliable guides to facts. They were very often editorials. I think one of the things that have helped to make the whole of American journalism fairer is the rise of national broadcasting. For one thing because people were using a scarce, publically owned resource under license they had to be more restrained in what they said. Radio found it advisable in the early network days to hire and entertain or be hospitable to a whole range of opinions in its radio commentators and I think that that idea of giving both sides and being reasonably balanced in the presentation at least being fair letting the other side have its say has had a profound effect on American newspapers.

Heffner: Which of course must lead me to ask you whether you support continuation of the Fairness Doctrine. You used the word.

MacNeil: Yeah. I don’t’ think it matters anymore really because I think the Fairness Doctrine had been so distorted and so ignored and so misconstrued by broadcasters who were using it as a shield rather than the weapon that the actual words of the doctrine suggest to me. They were that there was a positive requirement to go out and treat controversial issues of public importance of the day, and if you did, to be fair in presenting them. And the other side of it, of course, was that if somebody was attacked on the air personally he was given a chance to reply. The commercial broadcast, particularly local stations, which didn’t used to want to do news very much until they found that news was hugely profitable about fifteen years ago and which explains the great growth of local television news, used to want to hide behind the Fairness Doctrine and complain about it saying of course that it was a restriction on their First Amendment freedom. When most of the time what they wanted to do was not treat controversial issues.

Heffner: But it still comes down to the question since there is pressure now to repeal the Fairness Doctrine rather you would opt for getting rid of it or for maintaining it?

MacNeil: I think if I were running the FCC or the administration that appoints the FCC I would leave it in place. Just because it remains there as a reminder of sound ideals in American broadcasting. But many things are changing. And this is the argument they make. And that the Regan Administration’s FCC appointees have made that the reality is changing, that broadcasting is more nearly analogous nowadays to the print situation that the people, the drafters of the First Amendment intended…

Heffner: But you don’t accept that argument I gather.

MacNeil: There is some truth in it. I don’t buy it personally, but there’s some truth in it. I mean there is a much broader spectrum now. There is much more competition among broadcasters even than there is among newspapers nowadays. I mean how many communities have competing newspapers. All of them have competing broadcasters.

Heffner: But how many points of view?

MacNeil: How many points of view?

Heffner: Fewer?

MacNeil: I don’t know. I mean I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that. I think for instance that compared with ten years ago there is a very healthy and loudly expressed conservative point of view which has got a much wider and louder voice than it used to have.

Heffner: And it’s not political that I’m getting the cut sign now just at that point. And I hope that you will come back sometime because I would like to talk about that and I’d like to talk about politics and the politics of public broadcasting too. Thank you for joining me today, Mr. MacNeil.

MacNeil: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”