The news about the news is all bad

November 17, 1995|By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Practitioners of the craft called journalism milled about a ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel here last Tuesday night talking not of deadlines but of bottom lines.

The people gathered for the presentation of the University of Southern California's awards would not have been too surprised if someone in black tie had stood up and announced that the journalism school was to become part of the accounting department.

''The challenges to providing first-class journalism have never been greater than they are today,'' began Judy Woodruff of the )) Cable News Network, the mistress of ceremonies.

''There was a day when journalism changed from 'What do people need to know?' to 'What do they want?'" said Michael Sullivan, accepting an award for ''Frontline,'' the public television documentary series. ''We have gone from being leaders to being followers. We're not just unpopular. People have lost their respect for us.''

The doom and gloom was appropriate to the occasion and the times. The business of gathering and spreading the news has rarely had a period of such bad news for itself as it has had over the past few weeks. There is no doubt that owners have lost respect for reporting and reporters. Topics of conversation ranged from layoffs to buyouts and sellouts.

Among the evening's dominant subjects of conversation were:

* The meltdown of CBS News. Ironically, one of the evening's winners was Morley Safer of ''60 Minutes", the most successful and profitable news operation of all time. But the talk was not about his admirable lifetime achievement but of the decision of his corporate masters to kill an interview with a tobacco company executive, not because the company was suing or threatening to sue or complaining, but because they might think about those things.

CBS Takeover

If nothing else, the award dramatized the fact that, by any measure, the takeover of CBS by Laurence Tisch, who also happens to be in the tobacco business, was about the worst thing that has ever happened to American journalism, right up there with the lynching of Elijah Lovejoy, the Illinois editor who opposed slavery before the Civil War.

* The decision of Mr. Tisch's local station, KCBS, to stop running the state of California's anti-smoking commercials.

* The order from on high in the Knight-Ridder organization that the almost 10 percent-a-year profits of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News must be doubled. One way to do that, said Knight-Ridder's bean-counters, was to make reporters stop using telephone directory assistance because it is more expensive than using the phone book.

* The craven decision by the New York Times and the Washington Post, joint owners of the International Herald Tribune, to apologize and pay million-dollar fines to the former president of Singapore rather than stand up for perfectly accurate and justified opinion pieces mentioning that nepotism is a factor in the ruling of unnamed Asian countries.

We're on the run, at least when the people who come after us have lawyers saying ''Boo!'' to our bosses.

And we're in decline. There were more than a few suggestions at the Biltmore that the only way news is escaping the clutches of accountants in New York is by climbing into the beds of the numbers mavens in the entertainment business here in Hollywood and Anaheim.

The USC awards, sponsored by the alumni association of the school's journalism department, also served to ratify the dominance of television as news disseminator over the people who used to be called ink-stained wretches.

After Messrs. Sullivan and Safer, the other award went to a print journalist, Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times -- who is a television critic.

To add insult, the director of USC's print journalism program, Edwin Guthman, former national editor of the Los Angeles Times and editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer when you could still dial 411, was introduced as ''Ed Guthman of the Broadcast Center.''

Times have changed -- and so have bosses. When I was a reporter at the New York Times, if you were hanging around the newsroom during the day, someone would come up and ask why you weren't at City Hall or someplace, trying to find out what was going on out there in the big town.

Now, two young reporters for major news operations told me, if you have been away from the office, someone comes up and asks why you left your screen; everything you need is blinking on there. And if you have to go to the bathroom, all you have to do is raise your hand.

Brave new journalism

Farewell to all that! The most significant journalism news of the week was the announcement that Michael Kinsley of The New Republic and CNN, whose work was a jewel in the crown of magazine journalism and a spur to television journalism, was leaving both to develop Internet journalism for Microsoft Corp.

Assuming that billionaire Bill Gates has somewhat loftier goals than the bottom-line-dwelling Larry Tisch and various accounting firms, Mr. Kinsley's move may be remembered as the beginning of some new kinds and visions of journalism. Just in time, I'd say, because the old kind is going down its own tubes.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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