Gingrich's understanding of press is misinformed

March 09, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There is something old-fashioned -- indeed, almost quaint -- about Newt Gingrich's suggestion that American corporations should reconsider their advertising in newspapers whose editorials disagree with their interests.

No one with any history in the business would deny there were newspapers who once allowed big advertisers to influence their coverage or their editorial views or both. And there may be a few of them still being published out there even today. Not every editor is a profile in courage.

But the notion of some connection between advertisers and either the news product or editorial policies of mainstream newspapers these days is laughable.

For their part, advertisers' decisions on buying space in newspapers are based, as they should be, on their own self-interest as businesses, not on whether they want to be supportive to the paper's editorial views.

And for their part, editorial boards and reporters alike make their decisions on what to cover or what to write based on their judgments as journalists. Those judgments are sometimes flawed by carelessness, stupidity and even venality. But they are made by the reporters and editors involved, for better or worse. If they ever started worrying about the conflicting concerns of advertisers, the newspapers would never make it off the presses.

The new speaker of the House apparently hasn't escaped from some time warp, however. The Washington Post reports that Gingrich told a group of corporate executives that there are "socialists" on editorial boards and that establishment newspapers are the "mortal enemy" of the newly ascendant Republican reformers.

That's a hoot. If you ask most reporters and editors, they will tell you that editorial boards instead are too often reflective of the conservative establishment. And it remains true that newspapers still endorse more Republicans than Democrats. If the newspapers are the mortal enemies of Gingrich, who writes all those editorials accusing President Clinton of everything short of mopery?

Gingrich's attitude is a throwback to the days of Barry Goldwater, when his conservative supporters were convinced there was a conspiracy in the press against his candidacy, and HTC the days a few years later of Spiro T. Agnew railing against "the nattering nabobs of negativism" in the press.

There is a ready market for the conservative assertions of a press conspiracy. That seems to be an article of faith among listeners to Rush Limbaugh. And anyone who writes about politics in a newspaper is accustomed to being accused of plotting against the Republicans.

The conspiracy theories are nourished, moreover, by surveys that show reporters tend to be more liberal than the country as a whole. Those theories don't stand up to close examination, however, by anyone who knows how newspapers work. The idea of reporters applying some liberal agenda to stories is ludicrous. There is no time for plotting, even if the reporters were so inclined. The true priority in the newspaper business is getting a story ahead of the competition, in terms of either its timing or its quality.

Equally important, the notion of newspapers attempting to present some twisted view of reality made far more sense in the days when they were the prime and often only source of news and information. These days their readers have many sources of information -- most notably television news -- to use for comparisons.

The conspiracy theory also is given the lie by the behavior of the most sophisticated political professionals on the conservative side. They understand that reporters, whatever their bias may be, are interested enough in getting a story so they can be used in just the way the opposition uses them.

As for the Gingrich notion of "socialists" controlling the editorial pages, how does he account for the fact that these days a clear majority of opinion columnists published most widely on those ,, pages are conservatives?.

There is nothing new about Gingrich's complaints about the press. He has said repeatedly that he believes that reporters -- particularly in Washington -- are out of touch with what is going on out there in the country and thus are incapable of understanding the revolution that he is leading.

But if Gingrich thinks using corporate executives to pressure newspapers is a viable strategy, it is the speaker who is out of touch with the real world.

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