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PAUL DUKE: A Capitol Idea

February 23, 1992|SUSAN KING

"Washington Week in Review," the longest-running public affairs program on PBS, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

Moderated for the past 18 years by veteran journalist Paul Duke, the award-winning, half-hour weekly series (which is live but tape-delayed on the West Coast), focuses on the important news events of the week and features a round-table discussion of the week's news by leading newspaper and magazine journalists in Washington.

The series first aired Feb. 23, 1967, on the district's public station, WETA. In January, 1969, it became the first locally produced program to air on the new Public Broadcasting Service.

The future of the series at one time was in peril. After the 1972 Presidential election and the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, the Nixon Administration generated pressure against public affairs programs on PBS, specifically "Washington Week." The program's outspoken reporting by the late Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News supposedly had been giving Nixon sleepless nights. Some 15,000 letters from viewers saved the series.

Duke has been involved in journalism since he was 13, putting out his own handwritten neighborhood newspaper in his hometown of Richmond, Va. In the late '50s, Duke began covering national politics for the Associated Press. After four years writing for the Wall Street Journal, Duke joined NBC News in 1963 as the network's congressional correspondent. He joined public broadcasting in 1974.

Duke talked about "Washington Week" with TV Times Staff Writer Susan King.

Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of "Washington Week in Review." What do you think is the secret to the series' success?

When you stop and think about it, the fact that PBS was so desperate for programming in the early days really benefited "Washington Week." If they started a program like this today they would want to fancy-Dan it and they would want to put video inserts in. But they didn't have the money to do that when they first began. They wanted the lowest possible budget programs.

Because it is so plain I think is one of the reasons it has succeeded.

Has the audience changed over the years?

I think we are an average audience (series) in the sense I don't think we conform to any kind of elitist audience of rich, upper-income people. The audience is basically people who are interested in getting a very reliable summation of the major news of the week and that, of course, can cut across the entire economic spectrum.

The audience has grown. When I first took it over in 1974 the audience was about a million and a half. I don't know what the latest figures are today, somewhere between 4 and 5 million. In terms of growth, there are more younger people who are watching the program now . I attribute that mainly to the fact we just established a good reputation of reliability and credibility over the years.

The news media was recently criticized for giving credence to Gennifer Flowers' allegations reported in a tabloid newspaper that she had an affair with Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Bill Clinton. What is your opinion on how the mainstream press handled the story?

The question is what about the story itself and the allegations in the story? Are the allegations true? The mainstream press cannot ignore such allegations.

I don't think any of us really relish that form (tabloid) of journalism. Most journalists like myself go through a lot of anguish over the reporting of stories that deal in this tabloid trend or the explosion of tabloid journalism, not just in the print level but also in television.

The problem really is, if they report some of these things we can hardly ignore them if they bear on the character of a man who is running to be president of the U.S. Stories like this tend to take on a life of their own. In the final analysis, it is up to the voters to make the decision.

What are you feelings toward President Bush's 1992 budget and the Democratic candidates' plans to help the economy out of the recession?

It seems to me that one of the worst aspects is that the politicians, both the Republicans and the Democrats, are seeking quick fixes instead of long-range solutions.

I think the worst problem is the enormous federal deficit, which drains away so many resources. What is taking place in Washington is a mad scramble for quick fixes to help get re-elected in 1992 and a notable lack of concern for the future.

"Washington Week in Review" is telecast live every week at 8 p.m. With world events changing so rapidly, is it difficult to prepare each week?

We used to decide on people to be on the program normally around Wednesday, but increasingly it has been Thursday or Friday because of the rapid movement of events.

I would not have it any other way than to do it live because things are always happening late on Friday in Washington. We have been known to bring in a reporter to cover a certain happening as late as 6 on a Friday night and we do the program at 8 p.m.

In 1972, President Nixon put pressure on PBS to cancel "Washington Week in Review." Has any pressure been put on the show in recent years?

We have been underwritten by the Ford Motor Co. for 12 years and they have been very professional. The same is true of the PBS management. There has never been any pressure and I have only followed one rule and that is to try to tell it just like it is as honestly and as fairly as we can.

"Washington Week in Review" airs Fridays at 7 p.m. on KVCR , 8 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and 8:30 p.m. on KOCE.

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