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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   June 1998  issue

News of Public Life Can Be Dull Stuff   

But does it need to be, and what's the price we pay?


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

How quaint it all seems now. But it makes you wonder.

In the early 1950s seven candidates were running for governor of Georgia in the Democratic primary. That was the race that mattered. Republicans were few, and their candidates had no chance.

The Atlanta Journal assigned reporters separately to all seven campaigns. In the hot summer weeks just before the primary, the candidates were rolling through small towns speaking in front of the courthouses or alongside the bronze Confederate soldiers in town squares from the mountains next to Tennessee to the Atlantic islands, and the reporters were calling in their stories daily.

The Journal published their reports in stories of about equal length and, on most days, with about equal play. The reporters did more than just pass along the words, but any reader could learn what a candidate had to say. The candidates, of course, also read. (Well, maybe all but one.) So on a good day the crossfire was staccato-deadly.

It was spectator sport out there on the hustings, and good reading for others. And probably better coverage than most campaigns now receive.

What is distinctly better today (and not altogether missing in that campaign I described) is the careful, measured summation of facts about candidates, their contributions, their spending, their advertising.

(I'm not sure the improvement includes those equally systematic and blandly abstract outlines of the candidates' positions on issues: positions as perceived by the journalists on issues that they chose.)

But something is lost. Extreme mediation by the print and broadcast press has squeezed out the juices and left the news stalky and dull. Or worse: pressed out the news along with the juices.

This came to mind when I read Todd S. Purdum's excellent piece in the New York Times describing the non-coverage of the California governor's race as of early May. Nothing much was being reported, he found, despite major developments. It was an "all-commercial political campaign." News organizations were paying attention to almost everything else. Just a California thing? More of an extreme example of a dangerous trend, I think.

Was the press in default because people weren't interested or were they not interested because the press had not shown them why they should be? Journalists square off so sharply on that question, wherever it is posed, that it defines our own two-party system.

Are people less informed about public life than they were four or five decades ago? Not if they work at it. Information, commentary and analysis are much more available to most people, if they know what they want and where to find it.

But there is something terribly wrong when the once-essential institutions of news and information are not finding the blood, guts, brains, vision, creativity, foibles, idiocies and accommodations of public decision-making worth reporting as it happens.

Putting aside the press' democratic mission under the First Amendment, what could be more deadly to news organizations than making news, well, dull and expendable? l