Time to reinvent the newspaper -- 'or we're history'

Monday Book Review

April 11, 1994|By Barbara Samson Mills

MEDIA CIRCUS. By Howard Kurtz. Random House. 420 pages. $25.

RECENTLY, local radio commercials have been touting the virtues of radio advertising, claiming that the average reader scans a newspaper in 11 minutes. Similar TV spots earlier said that three out of four viewers now get their news from TV.

Has "the bulky paper that arrives on your doorstep every morning filled with yesterday's news become obsolete?" asks Howard Kurtz, press critic for the Washington Post.

It is true that newspapers across the country have suffered loss of revenue; even more of a barrier have been the new limits imposed on newspaper journalism by the purveyors of political correctness, so much so that many top papers "are flailing about and bungling stories for the sake of safety and volume readership, which leads them sometimes only a step away from tabloidism."

Mr. Kurtz cites a number of top stories and how they grew: Donald Trump held the top spot in headlines across the country for years in favor of other stories that were "kissed off" during that time: "The homeless, the urban poor . . . were all deemed hopelessly declasse during the '80s." Covering Donald Trump, the media "acted like little kids gorging ourselves on chocolate fudge." Mr. Trump was never questioned by the news media on whether he should build housing for the homeless in lieu of bigger and better gambling towers; he was a news maker who sold papers, and that was good enough.

Another case in point was the Los Angeles violence in April of 1992. "The mainstream press was once again tuned to the wrong frequency. The plain fact is that newspapers reflect the mood and values of white, middle-class society and that society by the early '90s had simply grown tired of the intractable problems of the urban underclass." If blacks and whites are at odds, it makes news. If only blacks are involved, "nobody gives a ---- about these people unless something goes down involving white people."

A blatant example was the Rodney King travesty and all that followed. "Still, one had to ask: Where was the press all along? Why was the anguish of city poverty and the ugliness of racial hatred suddenly page-one news. The despair of urban Americans had been the S&L issue of 1992, hidden in plain view until it exploded."

The journalistic weakness of which Mr. Kurtz writes apparently has no bounds. "There are no rules anymore, no corner of human behavior into which prying reporters won't poke. All of the [print] media . . . have been infected by a tabloid culture that celebrates sleaze." For years the press knew all the dirty little (and big) secrets of public officials and didn't tell the readers. President Kennedy's now-famous flings were well known to the journalistic elite: "The media have gradually broadened their definition of what voters need to know to evaluate a person's fitness for public office . . . the press acts as mother superior, party boss, neighborhood snoop and cop on the beat . . . but now that we have whetted the public's appetite for the seamy stuff, the forces of capitalism have prevailed: If one outlet doesn't provide it, someone else will."

Mr. Kurtz goes on to analyze many more of the top stories of the last decade. Homosexuality: "Some newsrooms remain uncomfortable with the subject." The Thomas-Hill clash: "The press didn't try hard enough." During the gulf war, the "press got its butt kicked . . . having given up their birthright with barely a whimper, the newspapers compounded their disgrace by blithely becoming sponsors of a parade to celebrate a war that they were in effect not allowed to cover as professionals."

Some 150 newspapers have folded since 1970; Mr. Kurtz thinks there is an answer to the demise: "Make people mad, write about outrages and injustice . . . Tell us things the authorities don't want us to know . . . Make us laugh . . . Touch readers in their daily lives . . . Let's sink our teeth into subjects that people care about . . . Break the shackles of mindless objectivity . . . Turn the writers loose . . . Set the agenda . . . Make it a picture medium . . . Satisfy the specialists . . . Liberate the op-ed pages . . . Connect with the community. It is a time for boldness, for risk-taking, for once again reinventing the daily newspapers. Otherwise we are history."

Barbara Samson Mills is a writer in Monkton.

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