State-of-the-art journalism

Ever since the invention of television, print journalists have gone in for self-appraisal, rather in the mood of a railroad engineer staring up at the jet passing overhead.

The public response typical of newspapers and magazines has been to announce loudly and bravely, "Pictures will never take the place of print. No sir! Not as long as in-depth reporting and thoughtful analysis are needed." Then the panicky command goes out in private: "Quick! Blow up some color photos! And hurry up with the new computer-graphics layout that makes a page practically hop out of a reader's hand."

This month marks an appropriate occasion to examine the current ambivalence of print journalism, as People magazine celebrates its 10th anniversay, Harper's revamps itself into a new format, and USA Today rolls into its second year.

The headlines on the cover of the anniversary edition of People promise "The Top Ten Celebs" and "The Best Photos," in that order, which explains why about 21 million out of the 22 million people who read People won't admit it. Looking at nothing but pictures of Lady Di, Farrah, and John Travolta can make anybody feel socially irresponsible.

We blush -- and we should -- to become engrossed in this never-never land where political action seems to be defined by a rock singer attacking a guitar with a chain saw. Never mind the war between Iran and Iraq. Is Michael Jackson really dating Brooke Shields? Death squads in El Salvador? Forget it. Here's an item about a $6,000 Marilyn Monroe doll.

IT is easy and chic to dismiss People. It is also unfair, as well as hypocritical. Amid the chitchat -- the text as captions for pictures -- there are more substantial reports. In the anniversary issue, for instance, Theodore R. Sizer, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is interviewed about his proposals for public schools that might result in "serious work for all children." It is as if the staff of People magazine were waiting for that day of sober literacy, too -- when the world would no longer want still another feature on Bo Derek.

Harper's has been assuming the existence of that world for 134 years as one of the classic magazines of idea. The new Harper's contains at least three pieces that might have appeared in the old: a report by V. S. Naipaul on Grenada; a piece by John Updike on Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"; and an essay by Joseph Epstein on the prospering intellectual. Not so prospering, it seems, that Harper's hasn't felt the need to jolly up these ruminations with charts and graphs and a vertable data bank of stats under the heading of "Index." How many people buy Playbody in Des Moines and New York City? How do Joanna Carson's monthly expenses compare with Solidarity's? There is something clever and chilling about all this, as if facts meant everything -- and nothing.

These bits and pieces, prettily packaged, are aimed, the editors admit, at "the sensibility of an age . . . accustomed to the technique of film." Yet a curious regret keeps surfacing. Lewis Lapham, the editor, mounts a devastating attack on futurologists and their worship of the "new technologies." Joseph Weizenbaum, professor of computer science at MIT, writes of computers: "Often the principal effect is . . . to avoid the need for fundamentally critical thinking."

One must conclude that everybody in print wants to be serious -- or at least fairly serious -- including USA Today, with those five-color weather maps and "Topics" served up like so many peanuts and olives on an hors d'oeuvres tray. For mixed in with all the little thing on toothpicks can be found stories on the environment and civil rights. Which brings us to TV, the pale glow over every print person's shoulder -- 213 billion hours of glow a year in the households of the United States. TV also wants to be serious -- just listen to almost any off-camera speech by a news anchor.

This, we are constantly being told, is the Information Age. Yet as the pictures and the graphics seem to multiply and the print seems to diminish, the quality of the information also seems to turn trivial, frivolous, and erratic. For, despite all our devices and ingenuities, nobody has yet found a way to judge and evaluate information itself except by the considered march of words in print. So forward march! The more difficult such things are to state, the more importatnt it is to state them -- this is, and always has been, the state of the art for writers and readers.

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