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SUSAN SULLAM

March 02, 1991|By SUSAN SULLAM

HONOLULU. — The War in the Gulf turned almost everyone into an instant news junkie. In 1973, the Watergate hearings did much the same thing. During that long, hot summer millions of Americans were glued to their radios and TV sets so they wouldn't miss the slightest twist of the unfolding scandal.

The Gulf War left many Americans with that same desire. While some people were tired of all the coverage, many more had a compulsion to be tuned to news of the latest Scud missile attack, military briefing or ground assault.

Unfortunately, the crisis has illustrated one problem with the avalanche of information that has descended upon the public. A clear line needs to be drawn separating responsible news coverage from the call-in ''talk'' radio and TV programs that have kept the air waves humming.

From Larry King to Rush Limbaugh to Tom Marr to Sonya Friedman, every uncensored thought, rumor or conjecture has been trotted before the public. From the notion that a grand conspiracy paved the way for our initial military deployment in the gulf to speculation about a possible Colin Powell-Jesse Jackson presidential ticket, it's all grist for public consumption.

''Talk'' news didn't just appear with the gulf war, but it has taken on some disturbing new undertones. The most serious one has been the legitimizing of ''talk'' programs by news organizations.

Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, network and local TV news programs have rushed on the air with ''call-in'' polls and ''Town Meetings'' in which viewers are asked to express their hopes, concerns and views.

Rush Limbaugh, an outspoken conservative whose daily call-in radio program is carried on 294 stations and is heard by some 1.3 million people, has been interviewed by ABC's ''Nightline,'' and by NBC and CBS in attempts to gauge the feelings of Americans.

To his credit, Mr. Limbaugh readily admits it's preposterous for news people to ask him about the pulse of America. ''The purpose of my show,'' he booms, ''is NOT to hear what YOU THINK, but for YOU [the listener] to hear what I THINK and then for you to call and respond to what I THINK.''

How true. But many people, including some in the business of gathering news, have not figured out Mr. Limbaugh's appeal. Sadly, politicians -- and much of the public -- are often no exception.

Governor Schaefer makes no secret of the fact that he's an avid listener of local call-in radio programs. He believes ''talk'' programs give him a kind of instant feel for what his constituency is thinking.

It's also not unusual for elected officials to be deluged with anxious calls every time ''talk'' show hosts stir up listeners with nuggets of misinformation about such complex issues as the Social Security ''notch babies'' or Medicare reform.

For several years, we've seen the proliferation of ''call-in'' polls on local TV news programs. Even a growing number of newspapers have gotten into this interactive ''news'' mode with ''call-in'' reader surveys. While these news organizations clearly state that their ''unscientific'' sampling of opinion is not necessarily accurate, they still report it to the public as important information they need to know.

There are many forces at work promoting the growth of emotive, responsive ''talk-news'' programs. Modern technology has led to an explosion in news and with that comes emotional repercussions.

As news programs expand to longer hours at times of crisis, there is a need to fill these programs with instant experts, analysis and opinions. At the same time, this flood of information leaves many Americans with a desire to question and respond. These call-in ''talk'' formats fill the bill.

There is nothing wrong with ''talk'' radio and TV programs -- they are entertaining, fun and often outrageous. But the ''talk'' format is entertainment -- not news -- and it's important that legitimate news organizations recognize this fact and stop using these gimmicks as a substitute for accurate, responsible reporting.

*Susan Sullam is a journalist and former congressional staff aide.

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