The Press

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Interpreting the news gets you on slippery ground. How should you play H. Ross Perot? If you feel, as I do, that the principal difference between Perot and one of those people who appear at political conventions on stilts wearing Uncle Sam suits is that Perot has a lot of money, does that give you the right to peg him as an aberration? Or should you call him a new political voice and let the public decide how valid it is? The second, obviously, but the urge to give the public the benefit of your superior knowledge runs deep.

The modern editorial is dreary pap compared with the firebrand stuff of the nineteenth century, when papers were not so afraid of offending their readers. Their place has been taken by a phalanx of columnists full of opinion. It used to be a mark of distinction for a reporter to be given a column. Now columns are routinely awarded to reporters who have grown weary of working stories and just want to favor us with their thoughts. The newest big-gun pundit on the block is Frank Rich, syndicated by The New York Times , who seems to write his stuff between visits to the movies.

If you can believe it after all this carping, the American press is doing a good job. There are dead spots, of course. When New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, last year wanted to talk about the state budget, he couldn’t even get airtime on public television because the subject wasn’t considered interesting enough. Still, I cannot think of an instrumentality as deeply flawed as the press that gives such good service.

It is, of course, never as good as it should be. The Columbia School of Journalism holds regular seminars on how to improve America’s newspapers, so perhaps I may be allowed a few brief paragraphs on the subject. Nothing here is terribly original. Much of the following has been suggested by people more deeply involved in the business than I.

Almost twenty years ago Sen. J. William Fulbright called on the press to reconsider its priorities. It is skilled in uncovering “the high crimes and peccadilloes of persons in high places,” he wrote, but fails in its responsibility to educate the public. “A bombastic accusation, a groundless, irresponsible prediction . . . will usually gain a Congressman or a Senator his heart’s content of publicity; a reasoned discourse ... is destined for entombment in the Congressional Record.”

The Times is changing. “We have become brilliant in covering election campaigns,” says Frankel. “The problem is to make the art of governance as interesting and exciting as campaigning.”

 

Traditionally, the best and most experienced reporters cover politics—"he said,” “she answered,” “they meant” stories. Howard Kurtz, the perceptive media reporter for the Washington Post , calls this sort of thing covering the “uproar du jour.” The newest member of a Washington bureau is usually put on boring beats such as regulatory agencies. But they are where big stories are usually broken too late. If reporters with skill and vision and the clout to make their editors pay attention had been covering the banking industry, America might have saved a few billion dollars before the savings and loan industry turned upside down.

Newspapers should go after the more difficult, complicated subjects and report them in the kind of interesting detail no other medium can match. This goes contrary to the USA Today experience, but there is room for only so many billboards.

Perhaps it is time to forgo our yearning for objectivity, which has frequently been something of a fig leaf covering journalistic indecision, and opt for perceptive coverage by reporters who make it clear they are coming from a particular point of view. British journalism has a partisan hue to its coverage, and when it’s good, it is lively stuff.

Afternoon papers with their heavy emphasis on news as entertainment have been particularly hard hit by television and supermarket tabloids. Let’s yield that field to them. They can always outjunk a newspaper. By all means, let’s have trend stories and personality profiles, but let’s have some decent reporting. How much do you really want to know about the tensile strength of Madonna’s underwear? How does she work? How does she achieve her effects? What is her appeal? How is she marketed? All I know is she apparently puts her brassiere on with rivets. If that’s all there is to her story, it isn’t worth reading.

Newspapers have specific relationships with their readers that the press would do well to reinforce. Television news, like meals in a poorly run state prison system, rarely varies from one indistinguishable portion to another. If it were not for the anchor, would you have the slightest idea which network news telecast you are watching? Would you care?