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Salinger Back for Summit : Veteran Newsman to Cover Event for ABC

December 08, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In June, 1961, Pierre Salinger was in Vienna as the press spokesman for President John F. Kennedy during the summit conference with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He dealt with some 1,000 journalists covering the event.

This week, he's in Washington, working the other side of the fence for ABC News. He's just one of the estimated 6,000 media personnel covering the summit session of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Summit life was somewhat more leisurely in 1961, at least for reporters, Salinger recalls. Because of satellites, he says, "there's a great deal more pressure now on the television networks to produce material rapidly."

The current summit is a relatively simple affair, with the agenda already set, an arms control agreement to be signed and each side playing to the TV cameras with gusto.

But when the parties agree to clam up until their meeting ends, as was the case two years ago in Geneva, Salinger notes, it means hard times for TV's live-by-satellite brigade:

"You have two days to fill air time, speculating on what they're talking about without having the kind of facts you need. And I think that's a major problem in covering summits now. . . ."

He doesn't deplore this trend, however. Pressure to put live summit coverage on the air, he says, has led the networks "to go into the depths of the problems that are being confronted at the summits much more deeply than they did before."

The rotund, cigar-smoking Salinger spoke about these and other matters from his ABC office here last week. The other matters included his reluctant move back here in October from his beloved Paris, where he had been bureau chief for ABC News.

Salinger, 62, still is ABC's chief foreign correspondent, and there are those who say New York is foreign enough to justify the title. He continues to maintain an apartment in Paris, where he had lived since 1970.

The shift, he says, was made because of "administrative" reasons: "They wanted me based in New York, even though I'll travel extensively."

(The move, sources say, was due to companywide cost cutting last year, in which ABC's Paris bureau was trimmed by half from its former staff of 18. A manager, not a correspondent, now runs the office.)

Salinger has been around and about, as Damon Runyon would say.

In addition to the 39 months he spent in the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, his past includes stints as the skipper of a Navy subchaser during World War II, a night city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a U.S. senator from California, albeit only briefly (he was appointed in 1964 to complete the term of the late Sen. Clare Engle), a contributing editor of Collier's magazine (no longer published), vice president of Continental Airlines and president of Fox Overseas Theatres Corp.

He had been writing for L'Express magazine in Paris for six years when he first tried TV reporting in 1976 at the somewhat advanced age--for television--of 51.

Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, asked him to do a few stories at the Winter Olympics in Austria. "I kind of did stories on the fun and games around the Games, but not sports," Salinger explains.

A year later, Arledge, having gotten a second executive hat as president of ABC News, hired him as a network correspondent. For a man of print, the world of television news proved a rude awakening.

"I must say it was very frustrating for the first year and half because there is a substantial difference between writing journalism and television journalism," Salinger says. He meant TV news' time limits--the art of reporting complex events in a minute and 30 seconds.

It wasn't an easy transition, he says, "having written articles 2,000 or 3,000 words long, and suddenly trying to say the same thing in 500 words or less--and being caught in a situation where picture is dominant. . . ."

However, he adds, the agonies of compressing stories ended in 1981 with his three-hour ABC documentary on the secret efforts to free the American hostages held captive in Iran after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy there.

The program won an assortment of honors, including a Peabody Award and an Overseas Press Club award.

The interview turned to the matter of the White House press corps, specifically ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, known to bellow questions periodically at President Reagan, who rarely holds interviews or press conferences.

Donaldson's bellows usually yield sort of a quizzical cupped-ear look from Reagan and, with luck, a shrug and one-sentence reply.

Salinger calls Donaldson "one of the best reporters I know," but he diplomatically avoids a direct answer when asked how the brash Donaldson might have been regarded by White House officials during the Kennedy era.

Back then, he says, "there was still an element of respect between the press and the government." But, he adds, "both Vietnam and the Watergate story created a hostility between the press and the government, which remains today."

During the Kennedy years, he recalls, there "was a much more friendly attitude by the journalist toward the White House. Now some people criticize that period, say the press didn't go far enough in searching out things.

"I don't think that's true. I do agree that they (reporters) were not as focused on personal affairs as the press is today, and maybe some people think they should have been."

Personal affairs such as the rumored affair between Kennedy and the late Marilyn Monroe?

"Well, who knows if that story's true?" Salinger replies. "I don't."

However, he concedes, "it's true that if you had the same kind of mindset then as today, obviously people would have been looking to see if John Kennedy was doing something."

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