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Chancellor Takes Best Shots

June 13, 1985|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

John Chancellor came to town this week to discreetly drumbeat for "Portrait of the Press, Warts and All," his NBC News documentary airing Saturday. But during 50 minutes with visiting members of the press, he also:

--Said he was "disturbed, deeply" that the Public Broadcasting Service soon will air a program that focuses on complaints by a politically conservative media watchdog group, Accuracy in Media, about PBS's "Vietnam: A Television History" series broadcast in 1983.

--Said he has come to feel that there should be a National News Council--the original one shut down last year after 11 years of operation--to give the public a forum for complaints about print and broadcast news stories.

--Dismissed as "a cop-out" the assertion last year by Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale that the former Minnesota senator's inability to master the use of television was his biggest handicap in losing to President Reagan, who was at ease with TV.

One reason for Mondale's loss "was his own ineptitude," the veteran journalist declared, later adding: "If you've got a coherent program and message for the American people, television will give you a very good shake."

Chancellor, who anchored "NBC Nightly News" for 12 years and has been its news commentator since 1982, spoke Tuesday to visiting TV critics and writers attending NBC's annual news-and-entertainment showcase sessions at the Century Plaza Hotel.

Puffing a pipe, gently professorial in manner, Chancellor made mention, of course, of his coming documentary about newspapers and television news. He summed up the hourlong program as an attempt to explain journalism, not defend it.

Before that, though, he defended PBS' award-winning Vietnam documentary series, calling it "very fair history." He also took PBS to task for agreeing to air "Vietnam Op Ed: An Inside Story Special," a two-hour program that basically is a critique of the series.

"Vietnam Op Ed," to be aired June 26, includes a one-hour production, "Vietnam: The Real Story," narrated by Charlton Heston.

That show-within-a-show was commissioned by Accuracy in Media, whose stated goal is to fight "liberal bias" in the news media. The group contended that the Vietnam War series, produced by WGBH in Boston, took a too-favorable view of the North Vietnamese.

Chancellor, who said he saw nine or 10 chapters of "Vietnam: A Television History," didn't accuse PBS of caving in to pressure from AIM, based in Washington and headed by Reed Irvine.

But he did say that he was "disturbed, deeply, that any organization" with enough confidence in the series to devote 13 hours of air time to it "would allow somebody to come on and attack it. I don't think that's what journalism is all about."

Journalism needs more "outreach," he added, needs to offer better ways for complaints from the public to be heard and resolved, "but I'm not sure that what PBS is doing would make me very comfortable, were I producing a documentary for PBS."

Discussing that outreach with the visiting scribes, Chancellor said "I've come very reluctantly to the belief that we ought to have a National News Council" or an organization like it.

He didn't say why his belief was reluctant, although he said that NBC News and other news organizations, among them the Associated Press and the New York Times, never supported the first news council, feeling that it "infringed on our (journalistic) freedom."

That council, consisting of representatives of journalism and the public, was formed in New York in 1973 to hear complaints about broadcast and published news stories, investigate the accusations and issue non-binding rulings.

(Its last president, former CBS President Richard S. Salant, has said he thought the council "died of neglect" by most news organizations.)

Chancellor said that lately he has heard more and more editors saying that "they really think we need some sort of news council. And there's a lot of talk going on now in places like Washington and New York and elsewhere about it.

"I think as a kind of a safety valve, it's not a bad thing to have."

Early on in his meet-the-press session, Chancellor said he thought the Fourth Estate today frets more about its credibility than does a majority of the public.

It's difficult to measure attitudes, he said, but a number of polls show continued public faith in the press and "my feeling, based both on polling and anecdotal experiences, is that we perceive it (credibility) to be a greater problem than the readers and viewers."

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