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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

TV Pundits Need to Clean Up Their Act   

Reporters and editors forget who they are when they get on the tube.


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

An idea for shock television: news reporters and editors who mainly ask questions, challenge the answers, conceal most of their biases, stop short of prognostication, never yell.

It used to work. But the "Meet the Press" of a lifetime ago evolved as journalists decided they were free of the rules when they became TV personalities. The bottom of the pit seemed to come with John McLaughlin, but MSNBC, Fox and sometimes CNN have found new depths for opinionators who still do news when they get off their highs, sober up and go to work on weekdays.

Is it useful? No doubt there is a place for commentary of many styles and tempos. But news organizations have cheapened themselves by supplying news people for the job. The idea is that it helps sell Newsweek, or it lets a regional correspondent in Washington play in the big leagues.

It generates big speaker fees like nothing else. In fact, news organizations sometimes hesitate to draw stiff rules about this because they are afraid of losing good people.

But what is a viewer to think when reporters and editors have an opinion per nanosecond?

Newspapers once were careful about even letting a reporter write a Sunday interpretive piece on politics in the news pages or on the op-ed page. Some still are.

Television crossed the line, thinks CBS and NBC veteran Marvin Kalb, with a regular 15-second temptation three-plus decades ago. That was a time allotted for correspondents to make a quick comment on the news, and they loved doing it. "It all started there," he said.

In broadcasting, the master of holding the line and finding the right balance is Paul Duke, who retired as moderator of "Washington Week in Review" in 1994. He ran his show with a good editor/producer's fine sense of proportion and whip-cracking discipline.

Duke prodded correspondents to talk to top sources, and then chose them or not based on his sense of whether they had interesting interpretations--not their own but their sources'. It was all rooted in news.

The correspondents on that show were not empty vessels, of course. They had opinions. But they showed restraint. You had the sense that they knew their place; and their place was not some demeaning role but the disciplined posture of a professional who holds to reporting as the foundation and heart of journalism.

The result was credibility. Viewers who suspected the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times of bias nevertheless believed in their reporters because of how they came across on the program. (It's still a good program, but the model established and executed by Duke was a classic for future instruction.)

Maybe the tempo of our time on television has killed some of our options. Snap-crackle-pop opinions appeal to short attention spans. But do they love us in the morning, respect us, or even find us worth remembering? Will they come back when we need them?

And if television has to do this kind of thing, couldn't news people, at least, respond to a higher calling? Just say no?

On the air that might even mean saying, now and then, "How would I know?"