The Media, Stupid

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 05, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- This is what happens when you take a few days off. Several days under the sun and the sunblock and I thought I'd missed the entire Clinton presidency.

Each morning, I woke up to brewed coffee and instant analysis. )) One day, the president was stumbling, foundering, floundering. The next, he was not ready for prime time, not up to playing in the big leagues, and on the ropes. Then he was under siege, on the defensive and losing ground. By the end of the week, it was -- somber tones now -- unclear whether his administration would recover. The Clinton presidency wasn't two weeks old and the media biggies had written its obituary.

Now maybe, just maybe, this Bill-overkill was a declaration of independence. During the campaign, after all, reporters were accused of being biased against candidate Bush and in favor of candidate Clinton. Some of the accusations stuck.

In Washington, during inaugural week, I ran into a respected colleague who confided to me and to half a dozen others nearby that ''I worried that I wouldn't be able to be as tough on the guy that I voted for.'' The reporter was happy to announce that this fear had been unfounded. ''It's been easy!''

But I think the premature news of President Clinton's political death had as much to do with media tempo as temperament. There is, simply, a rush to judgment.

Some of this comes from the technology of what is routinely called the information age. Phones, faxes, computers, satellites have speeded up everything. Especially news.

The frenzy of the day's events is now transmitted instantly and simultaneously to every news organization. Newspapers that once tried to beat each other with stories are now as likely to compete with analysis.

On television, journalists now routinely appear otalk-shows-with-an-attitude where they are encouraged to say what they think about something they may not have finished thinking about. The hosts are often in too much of a hurry for anything but multiple-choice questions, yes-or-no answers. The audience is not expected to listen but rather to watch words being fired across tables. Opinion-hurling has become an indoor sport.

On radio, too, a story breaks at noon and by drive time -- need I call it rush hour -- the call-in hosts are hustling instant opinions on everything from Zoe Baird to Bosnia. At this speed, the shelf-life of news -- what is new -- has been cut by half and half again.

But instant opinion is an oxymoron. You don't get real opinions in an instant. You get reactions. A reaction is something that can RTC come from the knee. Hit it and it jerks. An opinion is something that best comes from the head. Thinking is -- alas -- a much slower process.

In journalism there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right. In today's amphetamine world of news junkies, speed trumps thoughtfulness too often. The rush is always on to judgment. It's true in the legislatures where a fax attack can destroy a bill or a career overnight. It's equally true in journalism.

From this we get the obituaries of the Clinton administration to be followed, I am sure, by reports of its resurrection.

But this first, increasingly rough, draft of history may miss the news. Sometimes that news is about people who are clearly more patient than those who live and die by the hourly cycle. Sometimes it's about a man, now president, who counts on his ability to convince people, to grab them by the lapel and keep talking until they come around.

The race of daily small changes can even miss the slow pace of major change. So to the folks who say it's over before it's begun, I offer three little words. Not so fast.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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