News waits in the wings

April 07, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At a Washington Center for Politics and Journalism seminar for students and interns here the other day, former Reagan news media adviser Michael Deaver held forth on his secret for using television to the best political advantage of his client. The answer, he said, was realizing that "television isn't news, it's entertainment."

With that perception in mind, Mr. Deaver said, in the Reagan White House he routinely went about crafting the most advantageous settings and situations to present the onetime movie actor in the best possible light.

His message is one that not only politicians have bought into these days, but television executives as well.

In earlier days of television, when such giants as Edward R. Murrow held forth at CBS, the networks ran news divisions that strove to keep a sharp line between reporting and analyzing the news and entertainment. Their crack reportorial teams were so knowledgeable that their frequent roundtable discussions were certainly entertaining, but the emphasis was on the factual and the insightful.

But nowadays the line is routinely crossed or at least blurred with "news" shows that profess to be informational when they are just as much entertainments: "Larry King Live," "The McLaughlin Group" and the other shoutathons.

Now comes the news celebrity, such as Diane Sawyer of ABC News, "interviewing" 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez on camera as she sprawls on the floor chatting with him as he plays with his toys -- just a nice lady who's interested in him and asks such chatty questions as whether he wants to go back to Cuba with his father.

Or take celebrity "interviewer" Leonardo DiCaprio, the twenty-something heartthrob, sitting down, standing up or strolling with President Clinton in the White House and asking questions of him on global warming and other environmental issues for ABC News.

Mr. DiCaprio himself, according to published reports, addressed a disclaimer to Mr. Clinton at the start, telling him that "as you know, I am neither a politician or a journalist, but being given the opportunity to sit down with you here and talk about an issue like global warming was an opportunity as a concerned citizen I could not pass up."

The ABC News president, David Westin, apparently with a potential mutiny on his hands from the professional journalists on his staff, sent them an e-mail assuring them that the network's policy remained that "all roles of journalists must be played by journalists."

The words "roles" and "played" in this comment were rather impolitic under the circumstances. You half expected him to say next, in a variation of what the fake doctors say in headache pill commercials, that "Leo isn't a journalist but he plays one on TV."

The theoretical wall in the television business between news and entertainment has been full of cracks for a long time now.

In sports reporting especially, the wall is non-existent these days, with courtside "interviewers" fawning all over basketball players with adoring cream-puff questions. One CBS "newsman" chummily threw his arm over the shoulder of a player recently as they chatted after a televised NCAA college championship game.

Newspapers and newsmagazines are not immune, to be sure, to the problem of cracks in the wall between news and entertainment, particularly in sports, which is essentially an entertainment although news about it is eagerly gobbled up by a significant segment of readers.

With many print reporters appearing on television entertainments, which many of the glib talkfests predominantly are, and even occasionally showing up in movies playing the roles of reporters, it's getting harder and harder for the public to tell the journalists from the entertainers without a scorecard.

In today's multimedia, celebrity-happy world, it's probably too much to expect that reporters will exclusively work their own side of the street and celebrity entertainers will stay on theirs. It's probably a legitimate question to ask whether Ms. Sawyer is a journalist, a celebrity entertainer, or both. With Mr. DiCaprio, the distinction is much clearer. But it's a free country, and it seems anybody can "play" journalist with the president of the United States -- provided he can get in the door.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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