Journalism's double agenda

Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, has suggested that it is not the leaders of government but the leaders of journalism who set the national agenda - the topics which Americans take to be the substantive issues of the day.

The weekly newsmagazines, maybe four newspapers (led by the New York Times), and the three television networks, Mr. Bradlee would argue, determine whether the country will be thinking about the nuclear freeze, social security, or water pollution by their cover stories, headlines, and pictures in the evening news.

Would Watergate have been exposed without the persistent scrutiny by Mr. Bradlee's own paper? Would Vietnam have become the matter of conscience it did if network cameras had not kept the war as the agenda on the home screen, night after night?

These are questions editors and publishers like to raise, like a banner, at those symposia that consider ''The Responsible Role of American Journalism.''

But then we must ask too what other national agenda are being set by The Media. In the headlines, on the covers of magazines, and leading off the nightly news for over a month we have had the story known as ''The Tylenol Scare.''

During this period the population of China crossed the billion mark. The people of Israel underwent an agony of self-examination over the Beirut massacre. Charges have been raised about American intervention in Nicaragua. But these matters did not occupy our minds and hearts - pumped full of the horror-movie scenario of poisoned capsules, spiked orange juice, and razor blades in Halloween treats.

We are talking about a dozen or so episodes in a nation of 225 million people , and yet, as a topic on our agenda, ''The Tylenol Scare'' has been given the status of an epidemic. There have been few ''developments,'' as the jargon goes. Suspects have been named - and then seen everywhere at once. Nevertheless, though treated as a repetitive handout story from the police, with no comment beyond quotes from drug manufacturers promising ''tamper-proof'' containers, this dreary little nightmare has obsessed the country.

If we're talking about responsibility, what responsibility do The Media bear for keeping this obsession front and center, day after day, or, by the side effects of publicity, risking the encouragement of copy-cat crime?

These are questions without firm answers. But if journalists are going to take credit for the agenda of ''issues,'' they must take blame for the agenda of ''stories'' that almost systematically distract us from the issues.

If only ''The Tylenol Scare'' were an exception! But the same hand that serves us our spinach keeps covering it up with hot sauce or, worse, chocolate marshmallows.

When we have not been titillated by the lunatic fringe in the supermarket, we have been buried under nonstories on the football strike, inundated with scandalous details of the Pulitzer divorce, and positively swamped by biographies of John De Lorean - the more lurid the better.

All the grade-B movies of life, handled at a hack writer's level.

The issues are not neglected, but how they have to fight for their space against fail-safe headlines on cocaine in Hollywood and in sports, Prince Andrew , the latest herpes count, and ''The Tylenol Scare.''

And so we have the journalism of day-by-day history, and the journalism of peddled papers and hyped ratings.

Meanwhile, Spaceship Earth sails on, and all those dull issues - like survival - do not go away. What was making the headlines, one wonders, when Noah was building his ark?

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