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It's Time to Ask the News Media

LET me tell you a little about what happens to someone elected to Congress.

You get to Washington in the flush of victory. The waters have parted; great triumphs seem just ahead. Then, suddenly, the details. Find a new house. Move the family in the middle of the school year. (Those congressional salaries don't seem quite so bloated compared with Washington's out-of-sight real-estate prices.) You have to hire a staff, set up a computer system, and wrangle a good committee assignment.

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Then come the arcane rules of procedure (how exactly do you amend a bill anyway?). Then the turgid swamps of the defense budget, aid to the Middle East, Medicare and Medicaid, farm supports, and the rest, along with the petty (though not to them) concerns of the beer distributors, the real-estate industry, and other interest groups back home. The president sends the federal budget over in a month. And your next election is less than 22 months away.

In this turmoil, the last thing you stop to think about is the payroll office. You assume it's working, much as your constituents trust the Federal Reserve Bank to clear their checks.

The reason I recite these details, of course, is the media circus surrounding the House of Representatives payroll office. The news media have been portraying this office (it isn't a bank) as a scandal to rival Watergate and Teapot Dome. House members have been living like kings, we read, writing checks off funds that don't exist, penalty-free.

Well, there are a lot of reasons to be riled up about Congress. But the House payroll office is among the least of these.

Yes, the place was badly managed, but most members of Congress didn't know what was going on. That the media are so obsessed with this, while truly ominous bank problems continue to fester - the S&L mess, for example, and the commercial banks as well - says a lot about what's wrong with the news media today.

Consider one House member, who has been skewered by the press back home for "kiting" some 90 checks. Voters think he had his fingers in the till. But actually he's lost money. His average overdraft was for four days (less, because deposits weren't credited promptly). His accountant reckoned that this added up to the equivalent of a $265 loan for two years. Yes, he should have paid interest, or penalties. But (1) he never got notice of these overdrafts. And (2) the payroll office didn't pay interest on de posits, because it's not a bank, but rather a kind of check-writing cooperative.

Figuring in the interest he didn't get, this Congressman actually lost some $200 by not using a regular bank - overdrafts and all. In effect, he was simply doing what most Americans (including reporters) do with credit cards: Buy now and pay a little later. No doubt some members were abusing the system; the Democratic leadership in particular ought to take the blame. But by and large the news media have been making a mountain out of nothing.

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Some of the reasons for such scandalizing are obvious: the desire to feel like a tough investigative reporter without doing much work, for example. (The story was spoon-fed by Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, for partisan reasons.) Then too, advertisers have been leaning increasingly on the media to go easy on their industries; a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington cites an array of examples, such as a TV station in Seattle that dropped a comparison-price survey of prescription drugs for fear of losing ads. By contrast, members of Congress provide an easy target because they can't hit back.

But the biggest reason is simpler: Nobody except advertisers holds the media to account. There is too little regular reporting on some of the most powerful players on the national stage: the news media. It's time to treat reporters and network anchors as the newsmakers they are. If the personal lives of candidates are to be scrutinized, so too should be the lives of reporters who provide our windows to these matters.

If it's healthy for public officials and corporate leaders to know the news media are looking over their shoulders - which they are - then the media need a dose of this accountability as well.

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