The End of What Used to Be Called 'News'


September 20, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

San Francisco. -- "Looking at the free media, what used to be called 'news,' '' said Kam Kuwata, a political consultant working in Dianne Feinstein's campaign for the U.S. Senate, ''I think . . . ''

I did not really get the rest of it. ''What used to be called 'news' '' used to be my business, and it still is, whatever it's called.

I looked up Mr. Kuwata because of something he said to the Sacramento Bee when Jerry Brown said he was leaving the Senate race to run for president.

He had talked about the advantage Mr. Brown had because he was so well-known after two terms as governor and two previous presidential races.

It is harder to become that well-known now, Mr. Kuwata said, because ''the unfortunate reality of present-day politics in California is that news organizations don't have the interest they once had.''

I knew he was right about that. You have only to look at what the television networks did after the 1988 presidential election.

ABC, NBC and CBS dropped much of their coverage of politics and their political correspondents. The best of them were reassigned or downgraded (Bruce Morton of CBS and Jim Wooten of ABC) or just kicked out (Ken Bode of NBC).

At the same time, the networks also announced the end of gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions; people could learn about choosing presidents and all that on CNN or PBS or in their local newspapers.

Mr. Kuwata, who has done statewide campaigns in California and around the country, gave me a pretty sobering take on modern political journalism, including coverage of government -- free-media mediocrity -- from the perspective of someone paid to win friends and influence people on behalf of candidates and public officials.

''It's probably not in my interest to talk about this,'' he said. ''But when I began in this business, people like you or David Broder or Lou Cannon controlled the context of campaigns. You woke up in the morning and decided what was important and then asked candidates what they thought about it or what they planned to do about it.''

Then what happened? A series of things, Mr. Kuwata said, emphasizing two of them:

Newspapers began offering less news in general -- reducing the ''news hole'' in the jargon of the trade -- and downplayed political and governmental news because surveys indicated readers were more interested in, say, ''lifestyle coverage.''

To put that into shorthand: In the 1988 presidential coverage, Donna Rice was a bigger story than Gary Hart, at least in the minds of the editors assigning political reporters.

Columnists and political reporters got the idea that television commercials were the ''real'' story of modern campaigns. We called it ''motel coverage'': a reporter could sit in a motel all day and night watching commercials and then write or talk about what voters saw in their own homes.

''It was astonishing,'' Mr. Kuwata said. ''You turned control of your campaign coverage over to people like me. The people making the commercials are now determining not only what appears in paid media, but what is said in free media, too.''

Fewer political reporters with less newspaper space and broadcast time were using more and more of what was left to report on commercials and advertising.

A California politician I know said it was laughable that political editors thought they could keep campaigns honest by running so-called ''truth boxes,'' examining the truth or lack of truth in commercials. ''It makes you feel better,'' he said. ''But it's just a one-day feature in a newspaper against a thousand runs on television.''

So, even in California, a rich nation all by itself, with some of the best newspapers and biggest television operators in the country, candidates for the highest offices can go day after day without being bothered or questioned by reporters of any kind.

I don't know if that is quite the end of politics, but it is certainly the end of what used to be called ''news'' -- replaced now by exercises described as ''information updates'' or just that phrase ''free media.''

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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