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'Politainment' pitfalls

It was a night more than a dozen years ago when I saw the first vivid sign that show biz was winning the soul of journalistic Washington. At an annual White House Correspondents Association dinner, where the celebrity of reporters' and editors' guests - and not their value as news sources - was increasingly the benchmark for invitation, my newspaper's tables were chock with splashy guests, including the president's daughter and a couple of nightly news headliners.

But our tables of stars were far back in the ballroom's Siberia. All night there was clucking about the location.

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"What are you doing back here?" asked an upset editor who dropped by. The next year, our reputation as celebrity hosts firmly established, dinner organizers seated us so close to the head table we could hear the rattle of the president's cutlery.

When America talks about what is wrong with the media and puts the Washington "press corps" at or near the head of the charge sheet, it is that dinner crowd that springs to mind as the offenders. It's the right group, but an unfair designation.

The dinner crowd is but a sliver of the whole capital press. Hundreds of reporters, editors, producers, and correspondents - the grunts of Washington journalism - beat the bushes each day to bring you a broad array of news you can use. They tell you about the safety of the airplanes and cars you ride in, the food you eat, the air you breathe, about the taxes you pay. They get little credit or notoriety for doing so.

Chances are you won't see most of them at big Washington media bashes such as the White House correspondents' dinner or the tightly exclusive Gridiron Show, where each spring a small group of print journalism hosts invite their bosses and other notables to gather in tails and long gowns and hear aging media stars sing comic songs about politicians, badly.

But the sliver will be there. They are the highly visible face of the Washington media.

These days they don't often do that Washington news you can use. Over the past four decades, they have slid from pure political and governmental writing to something that might be called "political entertainment."

The slide began, slowly, when Washington news operations responded to the coming of a witty, photogenic John Kennedy in the early '60s by beefing up their staffs. Television needed authoritative voices to fill its feed-me maw each week. Newspaper and magazine reporters who could talk about what was going on in Washington stepped in, hesitatingly at first, then with both feet.

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By the late 1980s what had been a cottage industry for print journalists became a full-blown conglomerate. Many Washington print writers became richer and better known as they blended into the city's increasingly electronic journalism. Pushed by the competition of the instantaneous news of the Internet and cable TV in the '90s, traditional Washington journalism moved even deeper into "political entertainment," capping its performance - and its increased dislike by the public - with the titillation and political ugliness that has flowed out of Washington the past two years.

Now, finally, journalism professionals - both executives and those who work for them - realize something serious is wrong. But a survey earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in association with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, found that they don't know what to do about it.

Almost three-quarters of journalists interviewed "sense a degradation of the culture of news - from one that was steeped in verification and a steadfast respect for the facts - toward one that favors argument, opinion-mongering, haste and infotainment," the survey said.

But the Pew researchers found many still clinging to the belief that someone other than themselves is responsible for the decline. For example, they still say the public is just getting too much information - a theory the public has denied in earlier Pew studies.

"It is as if they really believe the issue of their future is beyond their control," the study said. That would be a remarkable admission if true. Journalism has protected its right to police its own problems with the fervor of a gun owner who believes his instrument doesn't kill people.

That means that if "degradation of the culture of news" is going to stop, the new bosses of the news - the publishers and CEOs - are going to have to do it. They are precisely the ones some newsroom people feel have played a large part in the decline as technology changes and other factors have caused news operations to put more businessmen at the top, taking jobs previously held by those said to care more for that culture of news.

The most visible example of the difficulty of asking such "bottom line" people to rescue the news culture has just taken place at the Los Angeles Times, where a publisher with no newspaper background infuriated news employees by agreeing to share advertising profits from a special issue of its magazine with the sports arena being written about. The action caused the retired publisher - a member of the Chandler family dynasty who is given credit for much of the newspaper's journalistic prominence - to publicly call the decision "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional."

There is, of course, no reason a bottom-line person can't also care about the news culture, a combination that would be welcomed in the newsroom and elsewhere. It has been done before. Then the toughest job might be to get some members of that Washington "sliver" to go back to being grunts. Those TV chairs get comfortable.

*Ed Goodpaster has been an editor at The Washington Post and the Washington bureaus of Time magazine and the Baltimore Sun. He taught journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md., and lives in Baltimore.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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