Is Television Trapped?

William Leonard, who retires next week as president of CBS News, offered the most wide-ranging critique of television news at last weekend's conference. During the afternoon session Saturday. Leonard suggested that television news was trapped in several ways:

* By its origins. "We don't yet quite know who and what we are in television," he said, adding that although television news grew out of print journalism, its practitioners seemed unsure of its relation to print.

* By competition. "To some degree it has led to a distortion of what we do. We cannot help being conscious of our circulation, and occasionally we are almost solely conscious of our circulation. There would be no discussion--none what-soever--of whether we continued to cover the conventions gavel-to-gavel if the number of viewers, that is, our circulation, was high or as high as it used to be."

* By the nature of the business. "We exist in between the pages of a business that is primrily successful because it is the greatest means of mass-medium entertainment ever invented... That is fundamentally what the business is all about... We exist alternately with that and sometimes we are confused by that."

* By the success of television news itself.


Later, during the wrap-up session Sunday afternoon, Leonard offered direct criticism of television's coverage of election nights and the party conventions. Noting the $5 million cost to each network of collecting and estimating the vote on election night. Leonard said the result of that expense and effort "is simply to inform the public five or six hours earlier than they would know anyway. That is the sum total of the social contribution of this enormous effort. If I had it all to do over again. I'm not sure that that is the right emphasis for our efforts. That amount of money is very large, and my thoughts have been that some-how we should devise some more sensible, more--understandable, less expensive and more common-sense way to develop--even if we have to do it non-competitively--the results of election night.... I sound like a reformed drunk here, and I guess I am."

Leonard also criticized gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, which CBS decided last year to discontinue: "History, time, and pride in exercising our ability as reporters resulted many years ago in the enormous coverage that we give the conventions. The conventions as a political instrumentality have changed over the years, but we have not caught up with that change... We still continue to make an effort at the conventions that I do not believe is warranted, and I don't think that the public, which kind of turns its back on it, feels it's warranted either. I'm not sure that even serious political observers feel that it's warranted." Leonard suggested using the $10 million such network spends on convention coverage in "some other and more fruitful fashion."