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Guess who's not coming to breakfast

Every year or so I return to my theme of how television has ruined the news business.

I probably should have buried my objections years ago when, right after John F. Kennedy had opened the door to TV cameras at his first presidential press conference, that great Monitor newsman, Richard Strout, said to me:

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"No, I don't like it either. We're part of the entertainment business now and we reporters are all mountebanks. But it's no use complaining about it. Face it: Television is here to stay."

That's a remembered quote, but that was the sense of it. My old friend Dick would want me to make that clear to the readers.

At first, print journalists kept their objectivity - and their credibility - by not becoming involved in television, except when they, in their work, were a part of the scene being broadcast. Such programs as "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" did not ask the reporters on the panels to express their opinions. These journalists just asked questions.

But now we have the TV shows where the newsmen and newswomen are the pundits.

And, as The Washington Post's columnist and former ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, puts it so well: "[they] babble heatedly about public officials [and] then ask the public to read or hear the news stories these journalists write or edit the next day about these very same officials - and to count on their fairness and open-mindedness."

But, as Ms. Overholser points out, "of course people don't."

I'm particularly concerned about another - and little noticed - negative aspect of television: how easy it is for public figures to use TV for their own purposes - for them to get away with prepackaged answers that support their political interests.

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A few programs, like "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation" do allow their reporters to probe deeply. But mostly, a public official like President Clinton will seek out TV interviewers who are entertainers, not trained journalists, if they are in the midst of controversy and want their side of the story - and only their side - expressed. I squirm when I hear these moderators ask their softball questions.

Actually, when the public official goes on these TV shows, he really isn't talking to the interviewer. He is looking out at us and - too often - seeing how he can shape his answer to please his audience.

Yes - you've guessed it - the Monitor's breakfast group has to live with this reality: that a public figure in the heat of controversy is more likely to choose a television venue - particularly one where he feels confident he will get easy questioning - rather than sit down with some 25 to 30 seasoned journalists who will civilly but persistently grill him.

One president, George Bush, who had earlier been a guest at our breakfast, once called off his scheduled appearance with us only the night before. We were told that "something had come up." After Bush left office I learned that he had canceled when he thought about the probing questioning that lay ahead and remarked to a press aide: "Why would I want to go through that?"

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Mr. Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, addressed our group and told us that Clinton would meet very soon with some journalists to deal with his problem. He gave us encouragement that the breakfast group might be the venue Clinton would choose.

But no, Clinton, instead, chose to profess his innocence in comments on TV where there was no questioning. Then his story came out, week after week, in painful dribbles. Later Mr. McCurry told us that Clinton would have been much better off to have more quickly leveled with us print reporters - and the public.

But is all this going to change? No. It's obvious that more and more people are looking to TV and not newspapers for their news. And increasing numbers of print journalists are staining their credibility by also becoming TV pundits.

Let me close with an apt Overholser quote: "when reporters and editors - people whose objectivity we're to rely on - join the professional sneerers, what are we to make of it?"

She adds: "One thing we make of it is a judgment about the trustworthiness and fairness of these journalists' work."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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