All the News That's Convenient

December 11, 1990|By Richard Reeves

New York.--THE MOST FAMOUS unnecessary victory in American history was the Battle of New Orleans. Gen. Andrew Jackson and the boys just clobbered the British on January 8, 1815. That was, you may remember from school, two weeks after the War of 1812 ended.

The Treaty of Ghent had been signed by Great Britain and the United States on December 24. Ghent is in Belgium, and there was no way for the news to get to New Orleans before the shooting and dying began. International news in those days could travel no faster than clipper ships.

News, like everything else, is both restricted and shaped by available technology. The ''wire'' services, the Associated Press and United Press International, got that name because they were products of the invention of the telegraph before the Civil War. A byproduct of wire news was a journalistic value called ''objectivity,'' the name for a new kind of detached, homogenized news that could be read comfortably by an abolitionist in Boston and a planter in Natchez.

So it goes. Fifteen years ago, before the advent of satellite television transmission, Edward Jay Epstein wrote a book called ''News From Nowhere,'' showing pretty convincingly that the news being broadcast by David Brinkley on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS was almost all coming from places where the networks owned local stations -- New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Philadelphia -- because it was principally in those cities that the networks had the equipment needed to broadcast nationally.

Now, of course, we are beyond such surly bonds and restrictions. Or are we?

''The networks, as national news organizations, are set up to relay the battles for power at the federal center of political life to the folks back home. But politics has up and left . . . With the Republicans ensconced as the presidential party and the Democrats in firm control of Congress, each side has the power to block the other. The size and function of the federal government is frozen -- neither to be shrunk nor enlarged. It may still be important to our daily lives, but it's not what you call newsworthy.''

That is the argument of Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes television news in a most unusual way: He watches it. He publishes a newsletter recording what stories actually appear on network news and clocking exactly how long they run.

I call that unusual because so much analysis of television is done by people who rarely watch it. The editors and political correspondents of the newspaper I worked for, the New York Times, were busiest writing their stories and putting together the paper at the precise time NBC, CBS and ABC were broadcasting the news.

The November Tyndall Report made the obvious (once you see it) point that network television has a very difficult time interesting viewers in Michigan in the details of political races in California, to say nothing of tribulations in Rhode Island. So, this year only two Senate contests got any national coverage at all, and both of them were covered in the style of ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.'' A black man, Harvey Gantt, running against an old white rabble-rouser, Jesse Helms, in North Carolina, got a total of nine minutes on the three networks. David Duke, a former Klansman running against J. Bennett Johnston in Louisiana, got eight minutes.

That was about it for Politics 1990. That was generous state coverage compared with the numbers for 1988 and what they show about network political coverage. The 1988 presidential race received a total of 3,117 minutes of coverage on nightly network news. All Senate races that year received a total of 21 minutes. All 435 House races combined received 14 minutes. That is for the whole year.

The 1988 presidential race, you'll remember, was not one of the great ones. Hundreds of those minutes were devoted to saying there was no real contest and that discussion of issues was being avoided by both the presumptive winner and the inevitable loser. In fact, the numbers show that, far and away, the heaviest coverage of the campaign was at the very beginning. The biggest story, in minute terms, was the Iowa delegate caucuses in January.

After that, network news interest declined. After the 1990 elections, the networks eliminated the old positions of political editor or chief political correspondent. The answer, it seems, to television's problems of dealing with the inconveniences of decentralized politics will be to report less and less politics. Then NBC News, CBS News and ABC News could be in a race with politicians and each other to see which becomes totally irrelevant first.

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