Skewed Press Priorities

When a Cabinet secretary can't muster a hearing

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People everywhere are troubled by the way our schools are failing our children and are vitally interested in what is being done about it.

Yet, just a few days ago, the Monitor had to call off a scheduled breakfast-group meeting with the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, because so few reporters were going to show up for the event.

Over the years the Monitor's group averages about 20 to 25 journalists. I thought we certainly would draw that many reporters for Mr. Riley. He is a Cabinet member: That alone would usually mean we would have a respectable turnout of reporters from the news bureaus on our call list. But with education being such a hot subject, I felt certain that the Carlton Hotel room, where we would be gathering, would be crammed with reporters.

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Well, when we canceled - so as not to embarrass the secretary with such a low turnout -- we had only seven reporters who said they were coming. Reasons given by the bureaus for this lack of interest? Mostly the excuse was that their reporters were busy on other topics and couldn't be spared for an hour with Riley. Often there was no excuse given - just a "no." Education and Riley weren't worth covering - or so it seemed.

And where is the press' focus these days? A silly question. We all know that the media is giving its prime attention to the president and the sex story. "Who is testifying before the grand jury?" "What's Lewinsky saying?" "How is Mr. Clinton faring?" That's where the press' spotlight is, day after day. And, obviously, it is in search of answers to those questions that the news bureaus are sending most of their reporters these days - to make certain that no titillating development is missed and that no other news organization gets there first.

This is sad. I feel like apologizing to Riley, a kindly gentleman who is so highly esteemed by his fellow educators. I think the press should be spanked for jilting him the other morning - even though I mustn't fail to mention that news bureaus are operating with small staffs because so many reporters are on vacation.

But my sadness extends beyond the breakfast. My unhappiness centers on this excessive preoccupation of the press with the Clinton scandals. The press people tell us that they are only feeding the interests of their readers. "Sex sells," I often hear my colleagues say. I don't buy that as a good reason for supplying the demand. Above all, a responsible press should make sure that it is providing its readers with the information they need to help solve their problems and improve their lives.

But a responsible press also must cover the chief executive. So it's plain to see that the media's focus on his apparent scandalous behavior has come about because of the president, himself, and the way in which he gets into situations that raise suspicions of inappropriate and, perhaps, illegal acts on his part. This isn't trivial. The press should be keeping a bright spotlight on all this - as it has on Clinton's TV appearance before a grand jury.

But- back to where I started - I do think that the press has gone too far in covering the Clinton scandal when in the process it isn't interested in sending reporters to a breakfast for a Secretary of Education who might well have had some very good ideas on how to make our schools run better.

I want to add, too, that the breakfast group operated throughout the long Watergate and Iran-contra periods without ever suffering from absences of reporters that necessitated cancellation.

Indeed, over the last 32-plus years there have been very few cancellations for any reason, during which time we have almost reached three thousand breakfasts.

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