News still being made elsewhere, but few are there to report it Media preoccupied with impeachment and attacks on Iraq

December 19, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When two extraordinary news events collide, Bob Weiner gets a headache.

His task? Trying to draw Washington reporters to a news conference about positive statistics on teen-age drug use at a time when, it seems, every journalist in town is following the impeachment debate or watching the bombs drop on Baghdad.

"They haven't had a two-fer like this since the death of Khomeini and Tiananmen Square," said Weiner, a spokesman for Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House director of drug control policy. "Instead of being a top-tier story, this is a third-tier story because you've got two other whole tiers, impeachment and Iraq."

Routine continues

Government agencies and other organizations in Washington managed to at least appear to be doing business as usual this week as the impeachment debate continued and the United States attacked Iraq. They released their reports, faxed their contact lists and held their news conferences.

But with many reporters not paying attention, and with many Americans preoccupied with the two stories or doing holiday shopping, the agencies knew the public was unlikely to pay much attention even if reporters did show up and write about the events.

Public relations staffers, dependent on journalists to get the word out and accustomed to juggling dozens of interview requests from reporters on deadline, were hoping for even a sliver of attention -- from anywhere.

"The major news outlets, while interested, don't have time for it," said Douglas A. Smith, a spokesman for Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. "While [impeachment and Iraq] are important issues, there's still a country that needs to be run. It's been a challenge since January."

Slater raced across town yesterday, shuttling from one nonimpeachment, non-Iraq event to another. He began the day alongside members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, urging motorists to drive with their headlights on yesterday as part of Lights on for Life Day, which is aimed at showing concern for the victims of drunken drivers.

At the event, sparsely attended by the news media, families of victims, law enforcement officers and a handful of advocacy groups implored states to toughen their laws on repeat offender drunken drivers and to lower their threshold for legal blood alcohol content for driving to .08.

Philip Ptacin of Battle Creek, Mich., stood unsteadily at the podium, holding up a photograph of his 14-year-old son, Julian, who was in a car with his father in October when a car driven by a three-time offender hit them broadside and killed the teen-ager.

"He would have been a wonderful person in anyone's community," Ptacin said, fighting tears. "But he's dead."

The "other" news was not mentioned except for a few thank-yous to the reporters who had left impeachment and Iraq to cover the event.

Terrance D. Schiavone, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, said it was difficult to persuade news organizations to spare anyone.

"Some of the news people laughed" when he called them before the event, he said.

For many in public relations -- unless they worked for the White House, Congress, the State Department or the Defense Department -- the effort this week was no longer about trying to make the front page. It was about trying to get into the newspaper at all.

"Every PR person in town is just trying to get a bit of space," said Beverly Jackson, a spokeswoman at the Department of Health and Human Services.

McCaffrey and Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, released a survey yesterday that they said offered encouraging hints that drug-use among teen-agers, on the rise for years, was leveling off and even nudging downward.

Low attendance

Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman, urged reporters at his news briefing yesterday to set aside a few minutes for the occasion later in the day. But attendance at the health event was well below expectations.

"There were two cameras here, and one was from HHS," said Weiner, McCaffrey's spokesman. He said that until the survey was leaked the night before, he had considered postponing the event. "You finally get to a point when the train has left, so you may as well go ahead," he said.

There were also fewer reporters than usual yesterday as Attorney General Janet Reno signed an agreement with Swiss Ambassador Alfred Defago to share $175 million in forfeited drug proceeds.

A crowd of hundreds -- mostly supporters and officials, not media representatives -- packed the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, where the Transportation and Interior departments launched a Web site called "We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement," which offers a tour -- in person or on the Web at home -- of historic places related to the fight for equality.

One event fared relatively well. A dozen reporters, including representatives from three wire services, attended a speech by Russian presidential candidate Grigori Yavlinsky on Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said Mark Schoeff Jr., a spokesman for the center. "With the bombing and the impeachment, I thought we'd be blown out of the water."

Many of the questions Yavlinsky fielded, it turned out, were about Russia's opposition to the U.S. bombing.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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