The Media's Bicoastal America

STEVEN STARK

February 15, 1993|By STEVEN STARK

Montgomery, Alabama. -- Anyone who returns home to the South after an absence always finds that some things have changed. But one of the most striking changes recently has occurred in the world of journalism, where many in the national media have seemingly written off the South as no longer deserving of attention.

To be sure, the evidence is largely anecdotal, comprising more than a few trips to the magazine stand here and a few interviews back up North with the experts. Many national publications, of course, still have bureaus in places like Atlanta and Miami.

But ask some residents of Montgomery who read these publications what they think and they'll tell you they have to look hard to find themselves or their interests represented by what passes for national journalism these days. The national media seem to be creating an elite, bicoastal product aimed almost exclusively at the Boston-Washington corridor and the West Coast.

Things were not always this way. While coverage at the top magazines has always tilted upscale and the South has not always drawn top billing in national coverage, the region once attracted its share of attention. Some of the best national reporting in the '60s came out of the civil-rights movement, and during the '70s and '80s, papers such as the New York Times perceptively chronicled the rise of a new South and the growth of the Sun Belt.

Now, according to experts such as political analyst Michael Barone and Ray Jenkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor at the Alabama Journal and The Evening Sun, those days are gone.

Because the New York Times tends to set the standard for coverage by other national publications, Mr. Jenkins thinks changes at that paper are partly responsible for the trend. He notes that the Times was run by a Chattanooga family and that in the last generation, Southerners such as Turner Catledge, Clifton Daniel, Tom Wicker and Gene Roberts held a number of influential spots at the paper. As they left, he says, the paper may have begun to lose some of its interest in other parts of the country.

Peter Brown, a Scripps-Howard reporter who is about to write a book about how little reporters resemble the people who read them, says: ''It's now largely a bicoastal industry. Journalists see the East Coast and West Coast, and they think everything in between is a wasteland.''

Not much of this would be of broader interest, of course, if it didn't also affect coverage, which in turn affects attitudes. The past recession was probably given far greater attention than it deserved because it hit hardest on the two coasts. The anti-abortion movement and evangelical religion are often treated dismissively in the national press.

In a similar vein, early poll evidence is revealing that Bill Clinton is more popular on the two coasts than he is here or in the heartland, where his stand on cultural issues isn't playing nearly as well as it is in Cambridge or on the Upper West Side. That, at least, suggests the possibility that national media coverage of this administration may find itself continually a step or two behind -- as happened in the cases of the Zoe Baird appointment and gays in the military.

The late Lee Atwater used to say that a political operative can often get the best sense of where the country is headed by perusing the tabloids at the supermarket checkout line.

Mr. Clinton would be well advised to do the same. Though the economy may have gotten him elected, it's now hardly the main issue that could trip up his presidency. There is still a great divide in this country. As they've already started saying, it's the culture, stupid.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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