A few years ago, Gannett, the publishing company, took a longing look at the mammoth audience for television news and tried to package its 30-minute summary of the world in newsprint. The result -- USA Today -- may have problems attracting advertisers, but it has certainly built a respectable audience. That lesson, it seems, was not lost on some folks in television; to wit, the packagers of The McLaughlin Group (check local listings), a news-and-opinion show now in its third season.
The genre that this program comes out of, public-affairs discussion programs, has been characterized over the years more by its search for probity than its hunger for numbers. While ``Washington Week in Review'' may not jockey between ``60 minutes'' and ``Dallas'' in the race for most-watched program, it at least offers an easy chair in which to get away from the news rat race and reflect on some of the issues affecting our national life. Similar, though less well-known, programs, such as the thoughtful and carefully constructed ``American Interests,'' go doggedly after the strands of intelligence that are too time-consuming to be pursued on ``The CBS Evening News.'' And in that way they offer a much needed television alternative to network news.
Do we, on the other hand, need an alternative to such plodding, decidedly unjazzy public-affairs programs -- one that, like USA Today, packs complex issues into easily digested capsules? I think not. And I offer ``The McLaughlin Group'' as evidence.
Moderated (and one uses the term advisedly) by the National Review's Washington executive editor, John McLaughlin, a former Jesuit and former Nixon speech writer, ``The McLaughlin Group'' operates on the old pit-dog principle that if you draw enough blood you'll attract a crowd. The show's regular panelists are Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist; Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun; Morton Kondracke, former executive editor of The New Republic, now the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek; and until recently Patrick Buchanan, who has left the show to join the Reagan administration.
The discussion (once again, the word is used advisedly) is kicked off with headline-style introductions by Mr. McLaughlin, whose chief assignment is to see that no one dwells long enough on any one question to pierce the surface.
Quickly, and in ragged succession, the panelists shoot from the lip with such observations as ``[Bishop Desmond] Tutu may be a moral lion, but he is a political ignoramus.''
It's not surprising that such a cogent observation springs out of the hothouse atmosphere McLaughlin inspires. The breakneck pace of the program is designed to make participants lunge for a quick, juicy one-liner. Right on the heels of the worst industrial disaster in history, for instance, while the death toll at Bhopal, India, was still rising, McLaughlin asked panelists to assign the blame. ``We do not know the first thing about how this thing really happened,'' Jack Germond protested.
That did not stop Pat Buchanan from guessing we would find that the fault lay with ``a lot of local ordinances over there; and maybe Indians running it were not properly trained.''
Not surprisingly, this kind of ill-considered observation adds little to the picture one has of world events. You learn about as much from an average episode as you do from a rip-and-read radio news broadcast. One could argue that the show is made up of columnists, who are most interesting because of their opinions. But the answer to that is that these columnists have the opportunity in newsprint at least to develop the thesis behind their opinions.
Robert Novak's opinion is only of interest insofar as he has a pipeline into some valid information source, and the viewer should be able to sort through his source material and evaluate it for himself. Here, he's too busy clawing at some fellow panelist's argument to present anything like a coherent line of reasoning. So we have him instead doing things like referring to representatives of emerging nations as ``third-world yahoos.''
There is a way to have everything the McLaughlin group has to offer, and that is to watch the network news broadcast once a week, then flip immediately to ``The A-Team.'' That way, you can learn what the top issues of the week are -- and then watch Mr. T. show how to make sure you get the last word when you argue with your friends about them.