- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser
Knopf, $25, 292 pages

The three of us Mr. Downie, Mr. Kaiser, and your easily less celebrated servant have labored in the newspaper vineyards since the early 1960s, tasting alike the sweetest and the sourest of grapes as our business evolved in a fast-evolving age.
I am moved to nod my head in grave agreement at many of the arguments they make in "The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril," such as that "the news is at risk today," and that base pecuniary considerations too often drive newsroom judgments, and that editors too frequently blur the distinction between news and entertainment.
I may be more sanguine than they respecting the future , and the truth is they may themselves be more sanguine than when they began this labor. That was well before September 11. There are signs of vision adjustments since then: the happy perception that out of the calamity will arise a new commitment to serious news at the same time consumers manifest a desire for serious news.
In writing about journalism you have to be quick. Things are constantly changing. In the early '60s it was hot lead and copy boys and 2-36k coin-edge Ben Day heds (as "heads" for "headlines" is properly spelled). Today it's pagination and the Internet.
Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post, and Robert Kaiser, a noted senior correspondent for that esteemed journal, are men of ideals. They take a properly high view of journalism's mission, which is to inform. "Good journalism," they write, "in a newspaper or magazine, on television, radio or the Internet enriches Americans by giving them both useful information for their daily lives and a sense of participation in the wider world."
The question becomes, where do you find good journalism these days? Newspaper chains are in it for the money, as are the owners of the TV networks. Contrarily, newer media, including cable and the Internet, have yet to establish their financial viability. Relatively few communicators communicate for the joy and privilege of communicating. Headlines and bottom lines seem linked inextricably. Owners dumb down the product, firing "superfluous" staff during economic downturns and cutting the news hole the space allocated for news rather than ads. Dan Rather in 2000 delivered five minutes less news than in 1981.
Customers are drifting away. ABC recently cast a baleful eye on faithful (and razor-sharp) Ted Koppel, whom the network proposed to divorce so as to clear the master bedroom for David Letterman. "[P]rofitability is at the center of every decision [local TV] stations make about news coverage." Some newspapers, some TV stations, do the right thing (i.e., tell people the things they need to know), but not enough do; fewer still, possibly, do it well.
It sounds grim. But the quantity of crepe hung in a book subtitled "American Journalism in Peril" is smaller than you might suppose. This has much to do with Osama bin Laden. In the 1990s, the decade that furnishes much of the authors' anecdotal material, we likely were news-ed out as a nation. The affairs of government seemed trivial enough to place in the hands of a president with a penchant for private affairs. There was no war threat. The economy was chugging along nicely.
It may be that news consumption habits were more engrained 40 or 50 years ago (e.g., I read four newspapers daily, plus Time magazine, during my freshman year in college, 1959-60), but there was just plain more news back then than in the '90s: more urgency, that is, in the events of daily life, such as the communist threat and the civil rights crisis.
We may be entering another such period now. If so, people will insist on knowing about it. We won't want our time wasted on Gary Condit and O.J. Simpson while foreign terrorists meditate our downfall. Mr. Downie and Mr. Kaiser are cognizant of this. I take them to be hopeful that a better day is coming for journalism. Not convinced: hopeful.
But it seems advisable likewise for us linotype-and-hot lead holdovers ("Hello, Sweetheart gimme Rewrite!" we cry in our dreams) not to overestimate the quality of journalism in any age. The authors exude nostalgia for the post-Watergate '70s, when journalists with a mission e.g., The Washington Post of the Ben Bradlee era - dominated the profession. It was, as the authors say, a heady time, and also in many ways a troubling one, journalistically speaking. The mission on which journalism was launched too often resembled open warfare against a "conservative establishment" perceived as venal and out of touch.
Media bias was the hot topic of the day, analyzed and criticized by such as Edith Efron, Robert and Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman, not to mention Vice President Spiro T. Agnew: he of the itching palm and the alliterative turn of phrase. The media of that day seemed to have developed a fine contempt for patriotism, for religion, for middle-class values and sensibilities one reason, I submit, for the middle class' growing neglect of the establishment media.
Today's cafeteria of information options makes us newspaper types a little peckish concerning the competition. But adversity is a proven spur to achievement. If journalism's present adversity prompts journalists to rethink stale and unworkable assumptions, so much the better for them, as for the customers.
Toward the rethinking process, "The News about the News" is useful, clearly written, fair-minded, and altogether a good centerpiece for panels at journalistic gatherings of every sort. Don't put us through to rewrite just this minute, Sweetheart. First, a cigarette and a slug of gin; we journalists need to cogitate.

William Murchison, former associate editor of the Dallas Morning News, becomes this fall Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.

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