All the news that's fit -- for television

Sydney H. Schanberg

May 23, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg | Sydney H. Schanberg,Newsday

FOR A LONG TIME, we in the print press felt superior to television news. Oh sure, if outsiders asked, we would adopt a collegial air and say that while we were the more comprehensive medium, the two species of news gathering did have things in common.

We could afford to be collegial, we thought, because we were the point men and television was the follower. Television reacted to what we wrote. Network editors would scan the foreign news pages of the New York Times and Washington Post each day and then fire off cables to their overseas correspondents asking them why they didn't have such and such a story. Local-station editors would go through the same catch-up ritual with local news.

I'm sure some of that reactive behavior is still common in television -- but the tide has shifted. More and more, newspapers are following television -- aping its quick-brush, once-over-lightly style and giving increased space to celebrity coverage and gossip.

I make no suggestion here that all of this "new" news is meretricious and trivial; only the trivial parts are trivial. My point is simply that television has now come to wag the media dog. My further point is that, paradoxically, this is occurring at a time when on stories of major national importance -- the gulf war, foreign policy intrigues such as Iran-Contra, the conduct of the presidency -- print journalism no longer has any but the faintest of traits in common with television.

In short, this is the moment when print journalism should be divorcing itself dramatically from television, and instead it has become the moment when print is imitating television more than ever.

To illustrate, consider the Persian Gulf war. When the Bush administration imposed press restrictions that were the severest of any modern war, the country's major media establishments -- big newspapers and newsmagazines and the television networks -- did some mild complaining but by and large accepted the shackles.

As the war proceeded, the press complaints grew more vivid and persistent, but to little avail. The protests came mostly from print reporters. The television networks seemed quite happy with the Pentagon escort system. For television, all that was necessary was pretty videotape for the folks back home. And the government saw to it that they got all the pretty pictures they needed -- Scud and Patriot missiles colliding in the night sky, artillery batteries firing salvos against a desert sunset backdrop, tank battalions spewing great dust clouds as they rolled mightily across the Saudi sands.

The press has renewed its complaints to the Pentagon, knowing that the government's success with its restrictions in this war will only breed similar restrictions in the next one. But why are the newspapers still negotiating as one with the networks? Their needs are clearly different. If they are to carry on the print tradition, they must break off from television and fight separately for unfettered access to the war fronts. Unless of course they are willing to settle for the pretty pictures the networks are so lulled by.

It would be foolish, moreover, to imagine that this issue pertains only to coverage of wars. When a government perceives that the press is willing to accept spoon-fed, sanitized information, it will apply the formula to any major, set-piece story. Coverage of the presidency, for instance. It will also, as it has for the past decade, continue to restrict the flow of data that is supposed to be available to the press under the Freedom of Information Law.

Quite apart from their relationship with government, newspapers have been feeling fragile from other pressures. As we know, many Americans are getting their news in quick bites from television, which has prodded the major city newspapers into often frantic efforts to hold on to readers and advertising dollars. The primary strategy has been to copy and adapt all those television techniques whose success is founded on a very short American attention span. Thus, we are seeing more charts and graphics and color, zippier layouts, more pictures, shorter news stories, more sports coverage, more gossip columns.

Hard economic times are also a factor here. One would like to think otherwise, but the recession is surely contributing to newspapers' imitating television -- and to press superficiality and passivity in general. Newspapers and television have both been hard hit by the downturn, with revenues way off. Atmospheres in which news budgets are being cut and personnel laid off are not conducive to aggressive journalism. They are more conducive to cutting back on costly, in-depth assignments.

Further, in such atmospheres, large media organizations often step up their lobbying in Washington, seeking tax breaks and other concessions from the government. Unfortunately, asking for fiscal favors can produce an inhibition, subliminal though it may be, against doing battle with government on other fronts, such as access to information.

All in all, it is not a very optimistic time for the print press. It lends itself to less costly and less confrontational avenues of journalism. One current trend that comes to mind is peephole reporting. The only problem is, it's a little difficult for print journalists, while they're peering into celebrity bedrooms, to think themselves superior to their television colleagues.

Sidney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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