Report card on the media

"My chief complaint against the press is that it seems incapable of paying attention to any given subject for more than 48 hours, unless it's highly charged, dramatic, breaking news story, like a war, or a volcano, or something odd and aberrational."

Osborn Elliott, former editor of Newsweek magazine, onetime deputy mayor of New York City, and now dean of Columbia University's prestigious graduate school of journal ism, is sitting in his airy, Olympian office, discussing his favorite subject: the news media.

"I have in mind, in particular, the continuing social and racial problems of this country," he continues. "For a while, during the '60s, the press was reacting responsively to the long history of racism and discrimination and poverty in this country. But it's not very often that you see much attention paid to those problems these days. And I think it's the responsibility of the press of keep public attention focused on those problems."

Outside, the day is cold and clear as brook water. Sunshine glances obliquely off the marble columns and the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Students come and go across the grass-and-concrete grounds, bundles of books in their arms.

There is something ivory-towered about it all: the lofty references to the duties and obligations of the press; the Rembrandt-dark painting of Joseph Pulitzer starting down at us; the stuffy portraits of former deans in the hall outside; the unhurried pace of academe.

But Oz Elliott is no cotton-headed professor, no vacant wanderer in ivy halls. He is a man still close to the power centers of "big-time journalism" (an unfortunate phrase which, he complains, was inserted by some sales-minded publishing executive into the subtitle of his new book, "The World of Oz"). And he can rightfully lay claim to the praise and blame due the journalistic profession.

Every four to six weeks, he sits down at an exclusive table with William F. Buckley, John Chancellor, A. M. Rosenthal, Irving Kristol, Theodore H. White, Richard Clurman, and Arthur Gelb for "a happily purposeless lunch club," nicknamed the "Rosenthal for President Club," to discuss politics, foreign affairs, and "what Bill Buckley really thinks of Ronald Reagan."

His opinion is still valued in other high journalistic circles, as well. Recently, for example, when Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post Company, was contemplating a change in Newsweek editors, she turned to Mr. Elliott for advice.

Under then-current editor Ed Kosner, the magazine had become "too frivolous, too pop-cultish, too unserious," according to Mr. Elliott. To correct this trend, he recommended his unfrivolous, serious-minded friend and former managing editor, Lester Bernstein, who eventually got the job. Now, Mr. Elliott says, Newsweek has been "stabilized, brought back on track in ways that it needed to be."

When it comes to making such judgments on the news weeklies, probably no one has a better set of credentials than Osborn Elliott.

He turned out polished prose for Time magazine as a business writer for 6 1/2 years and occupied a string of editorial posts at Newsweek. In 1961, at the age of 36, he inherited the magazine's editorship when Philip Graham, the late Washington Post owner, bought it. He went on to serve variously as editor in chief, president, and then editor again, until Mrs. Graham fired him because he had become, in his own words, "uninterested, selfish, self-centered, not committed anymore, and a lot of other things."

Before he met this fate, Mr. Elliot had led his handpicked staff in transforming Newsweek from a pale, me-too imitation of Time to "the hot book" (in adman lingo) of the '60s, an energetic, intelligent example of magazine journalism.

In the process, he may have lifted trendiness and what he himself calls "writing cuteness" to new prominence in weekly magazine journalism; but he also lofted the magazine's circulation from 1.5 million to 3 million, helped bring its advertising prospects alive, and launched himself into the front ranks of journalistic people-to-be-courted by the giants of politics, entertainment, culture, and fashion.

"He had a reputation for being chilly and forbidding in those days," comments Ed Kosner, now New York Magazine editor, who was with him at the time. "He was breaking rocks, changing the foundation of the magazine. So he was frosty and distant. Later, he became more warm and approachable, sort of a paterfamilias."

It is the warm and approachable fatherly figure, not the frosty rock-breaker, who speaks with me this cold fall day in his light-filled Columbia office.

A charming, courtly man, he is stylishly but not sportily dressed in a tweed jacket and a subdued orange and white tie. His skin is a delicate baby pink (which goes well with his baby-blue eyes). Something in his features suggests a man who has had to learn to find humor in unpleasant places.

These days, he says, his chosen profession has fallen into its share of unpleasant places.

The media have come under increasing attack for inaccuracy, intransigence, and inaccessibility. He cites a recent survey indicating that "the average man on the street feels the truth would be better served if every news story coming out of Washington were checked with the appropriate government agency before it comes out." And Dean Elliott himself complains of "a self-satisfaction, an arrogance, an unwillingness to admit mistakes," as well as "a knee-jerk negativism" among journalists.

The negativism is "an understandable hangover from the Watergate years," he observes. "And not just Watergate, either. It's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Wilbur Mills, post-corporate-payoffs-abroad, post-Wayne Hays. This has been a pretty disillusioning era the last 10 years. And it's not surprising that the press, being more intimately exposed to these disillusionments, has turned very cynical. But I think that's unfortunate. It's a matter of drawing the line between outright cynicism and honest skepticism. And I hope the pendulum starts to swing back one of these years."

He tries to root this negativism out of his journalism school students in "a kind of tone-setting speech I make on the opening day of the school year." In it is a list of what he thinks are essential qualities for a reporter, including "compassion, fairness, a concern for human dignity, and a caring for those upon whom the world heaps indignities."

Television has contributed more than its share of evils to the journalism profession, according to Mr. Elliott. Not the least of these, he says, is the relentless packaging techniques intended to make TV news programs entertaining, as illustrated in a quote from a television news consultant:

"Remember," the consultant advised, "the vast majority of our viewers hold bluecollar jobs. The vast majority of our viewers have never been on an airplane. The vast majority of our viewers have never seen a copy of the New York Times. In fact, many of them never read anything. . . . Ergo, keep it short, keep it simple, show them lots of pictures, make them giggle, throw in plenty of stuff about crime and flying saucers and sex fantasies."

"That kind of lowest-common-denominator thinking," Mr. Elliott recently warned a gathering of magazine publishers, "is precisely what the magazine business is notm about."

There are those who feel that Newsweek's constant pursuit of the trend-setting break- throughs in the "new morality" of the '60s approached the kind of "lowest-common-denominator packaging" recommended by the television news consultant.

He was not, however, above adding a touch of the "unserious, pop-cultish, frivolous" material Mr. Kosner got fired for. As Mr. Elliott writes in his book: "Sometimes we clucked at the permissive society -- and sold a lot of magazines in the process. A 1967 cover, for instance, showed a nude Jane Fonda [back view] in 'Barbarella.' Fonda was looking over her shoulder seductively. . . . The accompanying story talked about the increasing permissiveness in the arts as a reflection of 'a society that has lost its consensus on such critical issues as premarital sex and clerical celibacy, marriage, birth control, and sex education.' Thousands of offended readers wrote in and hundreds canceled their subscriptions; but no one will ever know how many thousands of others bought the magazine and started new subscriptions as a result of the Fonda cover."

Presumably, it was the new customers, and not the insights into America's morality, that justified the cover.

Defending this reasoning, Mr. Elliott maintains that such subjects were frequently dealt with in the magazine, "but always with taste." Questioned further, he half jokingly asserts that news weeklies by their nature have to "find a way to get the suckers into the tent and keep them there."

Despite this resort to unembarrassed sideshow attractions, the main diet of Newsweek was apppreciably serious and earnest under Mr. Elliott's editorship. He introduced a regular diet of blockbuster reports, including the first comprehensive survey of blacks in America to appear in mainstream journalism and a widely acclaimed, prescient review of the emerging right wing in America.

One of his former lieutenants, who refused to praise Elliott too highly because "he has blown his own horn loudly enough in his memoirs," nevertheless readily acknowledges that Newsweek became "a world-class magazine" under his leadership and that "Oz showed great qualities of judgement and did a remarkable job during a turbulent decade." Others are quick to agree.

The magazine took on the major social and political issues of the decade in what former editor Kermit Lansner calls "long, thorough, originally written articles."

Mr. Elliott feels that his kind of serious treatment of important social ills is sadly lacking in today's press.

"When was the last time you saw a black man's face on the cover a news weekly?" he asks. "When Vernon Jordan was shot, he appeared on the little curl on the cover of Time. But, other than that, there haven't been any. There seems to be a great absence of social conscience today."

Equally troublesome, he says, is "an arrogance in the press that is often carried too far. The press makes a mistake, for instance, in the way it fights for the First Amendment rights. Those rights really belong to the people, and we make a mistake when we attach them exclusively to the press."

Leaving his office and walking down Broadway to a favorite Chinese restaurant , he complains of an attitude among the press toward people in authority that automatically leads to negative stories on a range of subjects.

There was, for instance, a New York Times piece that "burned" Mr. Elliott during his brief tenure as a deputy mayor. He was trying to attract and keep businesses in New York City when the New York Times "completely misrepresented" a meering the mayor had had with Houston oilmen. The article called it an utter flop, when it was a decided success, Mr. Elliott maintains.

He phoned his luncheon chum Abe Rosenthal, executve editor of the Times, and complained bitterly. The next day the Times ran a correction in a front-page article. But he acknowledges that others, who lack his access, are less likely to secure adequate redress for similar grievances.

I had read a similar, negative, inaccurate story in a newsmagazine on a topic that I knew at close hand. My big objec tion to the story, I told Mr. Elliott, was not that the story had been wrong or negative, but that it had been so believable.m It had looked so convincing and was dressed up so perfectly as The News, the . . .

". . . The Truth," he chimed in helpfully.

Is this the real sin of "biy-time journalism"? Not that journalists misrepresent the truth -- it may, in fact, be impossible to be objective all the time -- but that the media are so skillful at making their personal judgments look like instant history, the facts, the unalterable truth?

"I think that's true. And I think it tends to be truer of the news weeklies and broadcasters than it does of daily newspapers. Because there is a resistance to leaving questions hanging open, I think, in search of that perfectly well-rounded story."

The news weeklies are quite possibly the most important source of detailed national and international news to the general public. Average citizens "have their lousy local newspapers," Mr. Elliott observes, "and their lousy local television news shows, and the truncated network news."

Although he thinks the news weeklies do "a credible job" of dishing this news up to their readers, he finds fault with them for "an effort to be so authoritative that they are reluctant to leave any questions hanging in the air . . . as well as for the lack of a social conscience I spoke of earlier."

His experience as Newsweek's editor led him to remark that he has "long been impressed by journalism's demands for compression and clarity . . . and infuriated by its imperfections."

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