The Tribulations of Journalism

EDITORS from around the country have gathered in Boston this week for the annual conclave of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and there is a fair amount of commiserating about the hard times their profession is passing through. On the economic front, a lot of newspapers are taking it on the nose. Advertising linage is down, which means revenues are less, which means there has had to be belt-tightening. Many papers are smaller in the number of pages, and the news-hole - the amount of space available for coverage of the news as distinct from advertising - has shrunk. There have been staff layoffs even at some of the bigger papers, which generally have more resources than the smaller papers to survive recession.

In addition to the economic difficulties, the press is deep once again in professional self-examination in the wake of its coverage of the Gulf war. The war brought the press into inevitable confrontation with the military. Many newspaper readers chose sides. Some backed the press for its efforts to get the news in the face of military censorship and restrictions. Others favored the Pentagon restrictions against the press, and some wanted even stricter rules.

Newsmen were critical of their own performance. Washington Post writer Henry Allen said the Gulf press briefings made ``reporters look like fools, nitpickers and egomaniacs; like dilettantes who have spent exactly none of their lives on the end of a gun or even a shovel; dinner party commandos, slouching inquisitors, collegiate spitball artists; people who have never been in a fistfight much less combat, a whining self-righteous, upper middle-class mob.... They asked the same questions over and over.''

Bill Monroe, former ``Meet the Press'' host and now editor of the Washington Journalism Review, cited the ``ignorance and prejudice'' of the press in dealing with the military. The press must, he says, ``recognize that the Schwarzkopfs and Powells are not aberrations - they are symbols of a pervasive excellence and esprit among men and women in uniform, qualities that journalists, like other Americans, have reason to be grateful for.''

One of the unkindest cuts of all came from a former print editor, Michael G. Gartner, now president of NBC News, who told a Los Angeles audience that print reporters cannot compare with the ``brave, bold and almost swashbuckling'' television crews who ``charge through the world's war zones.'' Print reporters, he went on, can usually report from a safe distance, ``avoiding the front lines and remaining in the background.''

The network news folk can hardly afford to be smug for they are not without their own tribulations. The television networks are about to be hit with huge budget cuts. Bureaus are to be closed. Pooled coverage is to be expanded. Presidential press flights are being cut back because network executives are slashing correspondents' travel budgets.

Readers and viewers have contradictory attitudes toward the press. A Times Mirror poll found that 79 percent of Americans polled approved Pentagon press restrictions. Some 57 percent wanted stricter rules. Yet 61 percent of those polled thought the press offered an accurate picture of the war; 72 percent thought the coverage was unbiased.

In time, news organizations will recover from budget woes. But of much longer-lasting concern must be public hostility towards their newspapers.

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