Talk-show age may mean media are yesterday's news

MIKE LITTWIN

February 05, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

There was once a time -- I think it was about a month ago -- when working for a newspaper meant something.

If nothing else, it meant you were automatically enrolled as a card-carrying, liberal, decaf-sipping nabob of negativism who pretty much ran the country. You also might get a shot on the McLaughlin Group.

Apparently it didn't matter that for the last 12 years, the anti-liberal, anti-decaf poo-bahs of positivism commandeered the oval office. The media were still in charge. That's what Pat Buchanan said anyway.

Now, a Democrat is in -- and we're out.

Go figure.

The new president has so little regard for the traditional media that he never even talks to us. I know he hasn't returned my calls. He doesn't even write.

And it isn't just me: The prez's post-inaugural press conference count is holding at approximately zero.

Instead of talking to newspaper folk or even TV network folk and taking questions like "Were you in or out of the loop, nanny-wise?" Bill Clinton is going directly to the people. The people. Can you believe that? Since when is a president supposed to talk to actual, civilian-type folk?

Shaking hands is fine.

Kissing babies is great.

Jogging to McDonald's and sneaking a large pack of fries while )) chatting up an awed cashier is, well, what we expect of our president.

But talking -- in other words, an actual conversation in which somebody talks, Clinton responds, the somebody talks again, Clinton talks again -- that's your basic uncharted territory, presidentially speaking.

Here's what Clinton is doing. He's heading to Detroit -- Detroit? -- on Wednesday to host one of those electronic town meetings that Ross "The Wedding Went Fine, Thanks" Perot championed. Clinton will take questions from people in Detroit. He'll take more questions from folks in cities hooked up to Detroit. He'll take phone calls from all over. He may, and this is still unclear, wear an old pair of Larry King's suspenders.

What we've got is the president as talk-show host.

This can't be surprising. If you read your current Newsweek -- and, gosh, I never miss its cutting-edge trend pieces -- there's a cover story telling us that call-in shows have shaken this old republic to its roots. We are in the age of talk-show democracy, which is, by the way, nothing like the Age of Aquarius.

The call-in shows doomed Zoe Baird, who was the first great example of they-don't-get-it in the current administration. Nobody got it. Not Clinton. Not the senators. Not the media. When ordinary people started screaming, usually on your friendly AM dial, everyone had to listen. Nothing will ever be the same.

Many were calling Larry King, who is, of course, the king of call-in shows. He earned this title by having to host a show that was on until 5 in the morning. He did this for about 15 years. Try to imagine that.

While you're at it, try to imagine your typical 3 a.m. call -- it's always either about who killed John Kennedy or about the aliens (not the illegal kind) landing in the caller's back yard and would Larry care to talk to them. Yes, he's earned it, even if he did invent Ross Perot. You see, he'd had a lot of experience with telephonic paranoia.

I don't mind Larry King. I do mind some of the others. I especially mind Rush Limbaugh, who, it should be mentioned, got his start TTC as Marge Schott's personal trainer. Rush (Rush? I know I'm in a hurry to hit the remote whenever I see his face) is Pat Buchanan on a sugar high. Somebody called him Hitler Lite, and I think it should stick.

The point is, do you listen to these shows? Do you hear who calls? Do they all seem normal to you?

Don't many of them seem like the people you later hear the neighbors describe as "quiet, never caused any problems"?

Is it these people the president is going to hear without the benefit of that filter we call the media, who have so nobly represented the people's interests?

There are many in the newspaper business much perturbed by this turn of events. They say that unless the president agrees to meet with them regularly, the truth will never be learned and democracy as we know it will cease to exist.

Of course, there are a few in the business who don't see it that way.

You can pick them out. They're the ones with their own call-in shows.

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