A Voice Cries in the Metropolis: No Right-Wing Stunts, or Else

January 23, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- This may be exurbia, I sometimes have to remind visitors from more metropolitan settings, but it isn't Burundi, for crying out loud. I mean, there are two or three different places in town where you can buy the Washington Post, and people do.

A community with the Washington Post available every morning, stacked on the shelf at Charles McLhinney's news stand along with the Cecil Whig and the Racing Form, is a pretty up-do-date place, I'd say. We're cruising right down the big information highway with everyone else, and what all the big shots in Washington know, we know too. It may not be worth 70 cents, which is what the Post costs here, but by gosh we know it.

There was a time in the distant past when I read the Post as closely as anyone. I was a reporter there for several happy years in my youth, and when Al Lewis, the legend who covered the city police, told me that I should read everything in the paper every day, I took his advice to heart. Food, Sports, editorials, the four pages of comics, Today's Chuckle, even the section then tastefully named For and About Women -- I read it all.

Of course, no human brain can stand such abuse forever, and eventually, as the Post grew fatter and fatter and famouser and famouser, I read less and less of it. Sometimes I went for days on end without picking it up. Lately, though, on these long winter evenings, I've started reading it again, albeit more selectively. It's been an interesting experience.

The Post, now as in the past, takes a lot of abuse for its politics. Many people living far from Washington, as well as some of its regular readers, see it as left-wing and thus untrustworthy as a source of news. But it seems to me its politics are a main reason for its strength.

A generation or two ago, most cities of any size had several newspapers. (This city had two, the Democratic Ledger and the Republican. Only the latter, now called The Record, survives.) A successful paper developed a keen sense of its readership. It spoke to its readers in a special institutional voice, and told them what it had learned they wanted to know.

When these readers died or moved away, the papers that had served them usually died too. And as each editorial voice was stilled, the surviving voices grew a little blander, a little less controversial, in a perfectly sensible effort not to offend the readers who remained in the market.

Thus, in Baltimore, after the News American died in 1986, The Sun accelerated a process that was already under way, and shed almost every remaining quirk and anachronism of the many that had once made it so distinctive.

That's not -- emphatically not -- to say it isn't as ''good'' a newspaper today as it used to be. ''Good'' means quite different things to advertising directors, professors of journalism, newspaper-stock analysts, county commissioners and lacrosse coaches. But whether it's good or whether it's not, The Sun today is no longer the unusual paper it was 30 years ago. It resembles many other papers in many other cities, suggesting that a distinctive institutional personality is no longer com- patible with commercial survival.

But that seems to be less so in Washington. There, the Post churns along exuberantly, its commercial dominance unthreatened by the Washington Times or anything else, with its own distinctive personality bubbling repeatedly to the surface. It has its little biases, and it isn't afraid to let them show. This delights some and outrages others, but there's a certain honesty about it that's refreshing.

Take, for example, the Post's front-page coverage last Saturday of the impending inauguration of the conservative George Allen as governor of Virginia. The tone was decidedly unfriendly. The story dismissed Mr. Allen as a ''self-proclaimed populist,'' called him ''low on administrative experience,'' and made it clear that if he tries to pull any right-wing stunts he'll find himself in hot water with the Post.

But so what? That kind of edged political ''reporting,'' infused with the newspaper's point of view, deceives no readers. It's probably even helpful, as a reminder to readers and politicians of what the paper thinks. Done right, it demonstrates, as do many Post stories, that it's possible to be critical and fair at the same time. (Perhaps in the further interest of fairness, the Post followed up the nasty news story about Governor-elect Allen a couple of days later with a friendly editorial.)

For all its faults, and it has plenty, the Post tends to play fair with its readers about its prejudices. And because it admits, even tacitly, that it has such prejudices, it seems in some respects more trustworthy than do newspapers which insist they have none. Without prejudices, there can't be much personality. And it's their lack of personality that's so disappointing about most newspapers today.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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