Future Tense Journalism

August 24, 1991|By ARNOLD R. ISAACS

Once again, a major international news story has brought forthgreat billows of a dubious new form of broadcast news coverage -- what might be called Future Tense Journalism or, in a common variant, Conditional Tense Journalism.

Avoiding the hard work of trying to report and explain what has happened, Future Tense Journalism, as we saw and heard it during the Soviet crisis, seeks out ''experts'' viewing the scene from afar (this being August, often from such spots as the Maine coast or the Colorado mountains) and asks them what will happen -- will Soviet soldiers fire on Moscow civilians? will the coup leaders go on trial or leave the country? -- and so on, hour after ''special live coverage'' hour.

Compared to real journalism, this stuff is pretty effortless. Persuading a university professor or former U.S. official or journalistic guru to give opinions on the air is rarely a challenge (the hard part is getting them to stop!); the questions are easy and obvious, and because the answers are purely speculative, neither interviewer nor audience is put to the trouble of absorbing and evaluating new information.

Future Tense Journalism is not just a matter of speculating from known facts. Because live broadcasting makes instantaneous ''new'' of virtually any fragment of information that comes to a reporter's attention, before it can be verified or evaluated or put into any coherent context, a good deal of this ''expert'' speculation proceeds from sketchy, incomplete and unconfirmed reports.

This produces Conditional Tense Journalism. If such-and-such is true, the interviewer asks, what consequences will it have? -- and off the discussion goes, floating up into clouds of soft, fluffy hypothesis, farther and farther from the solid earth of fact.

It didn't start with the Soviet crisis, of course. Remember all those professors and think-tank pundits during the Gulf War estimating casualties in a battle that hadn't begun? Or those China scholars trying to predict, from their campuses in America, whether one Chinese Communist field army was about to attack another in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square?

The interviews that produce such commentaries reflect a curious disconnection between form and result: Questions are asked of people who cannot possibly have any real answers. If ABC's or National Public Radio's correspondents in Moscow and their colleagues didn't know whether Soviet soldiers would fire on civilians, what made ABC and NPR anchors think they could get a useful answer from a professor in Ann Arbor or a vacationing ex-diplomat in Maine? At a time when no one in the West yet knew where (or even if) the coup leaders had gone, how was an author in Massachusetts supposed to predict whether they would be put on trial or allowed to flee the country?

The sad part is that those experts, or many of them, do have useful information to contribute, if only they were asked questions that require more looking back at what is known, and less looking ahead at what isn't. What political forces have been at work in Soviet society, and how have they evolved? Who are the ''hard-liners,'' who supports them, and why? Who are the ''progressives,'' what are their policies, and what have they achieved? What were Mikhail Gorbachev's strengths and weaknesses? Yeltsin's? Seeking past or present-tense assessments of such issues would be more helpful, one would think, than inviting future-tense guesses.

There were useful reports from time to time. A ''Nightline'' segment one evening showed several clips of interviews or speeches by Soviet conservatives, helping to explain (instead of just labeling) that segment of Soviet society and its objections to the Gorbachev reforms. But such illuminating reports were small drops in a large bucket of ''expert'' predictions or speculation.

Why this happens is hard to say. It may be a matter of lazy journalism which then assumes, consciously or unconsciously, that its audience is also lazy.

In any big crisis, it's natural for people to wonder where events are leading. Journalism can properly frame the significant questions about what might come next. But to wallow in this much future-tense speculation is to forget that journalism's main responsibility, and its main effort, should be to report and explain what is going on, not to offer guesses, no matter how ''expert,'' about the future.

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Sun reporter, is a free-lance writer. He recently spent six weeks as a guest professor in the Soviet zTC Union.

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