Has anybody seen the mainstream lately?
THE two veteran journalists are about to go on vacation. They have their green visors packed - the ones they wear now only to watch baseball games from the bleachers. Sitting in the composing room where the old linotype machines once stood, they prop up their yellowing pictures of Ernie Pyle and Walter Lippmann and conduct, as is their pre-vacation habit, their annual review of the state of journalism. First Vet: Journalism is polarizing, like politics and everything else.
Second Vet: What do you mean?
First Vet: Well, we cover life at the top pretty well. More than 2,000 journalists pouncing on every sweet nothing from Ron and Maggie and the summit at Venice. Squads of highly trained prose stylists in the bushes, around the clock, staking out Gary Hart. A whole congregation of scribes, if not Pharisees, recording every teardrop from Tammy Bakker.
And we cover life at the bottom pretty well, too. Lots of bulletins from the ghetto. Lots of stat sheets on the underclass. Plenty about cocaine, riots, and the Mafia.
It's what's in between that we're not so good at.
Second Vet: You mean, everything's either life styles of the rich and famous - or street people. But where's the center?
First Vet: Exactly! It's as if the middle section of most newspapers is missing. It's as if we're leaving out our own third world - call it the middle class, or maybe the middle range of life.
Second Vet: We cover the big winners ...
First Vet: And the big losers.
Second Vet: The folks with the right lottery tickets ...
First Vet: And the jumpers from the ledge.
Second Vet: Well, the extraordinary is news.
First Vet: OK. But look at what covering the extremes instead of the center means. The subject is air travel? We give you the latest Concorde record - or a plane crash in Spain. the subject is teen-agers? We give you the newest 13-year-old computer genius - or another case history of teen-age pregnancy or drug abuse.
Second Vet: Sometimes the two polarities come together - then it's really surrealistic.
First Vet: That's right - like when multimillionaire rock stars sing in behalf of African famine victims.
Second Vet: Or Elizabeth Taylor simultaneously involves herself in working for her perfume and the cause of AIDS.
First Vet: My favorite confusion of the moment concerns the stories forecasting a Great Depression in the 1990s. Business-page columnists play middlemen to Ravi Batra's book on the subject, advising their yuppie readers to prepare for the worst by saving up $44,000 in cash - a third of it to be stashed in your home in case your bank goes belly-up. Some gold-plated apocalypse!
Second Vet: And don't forget to stockpile your Perrier!
First Vet: Right. Keeping up with crises gets to be like watching a battle in Afghanistan on your Sony Trinatron while lounging on your Bloomingdale's sofa.
Second Vet: Split screen, split personality - that's us.
First Vet: Meanwhile, most of life goes on halfway between triumph and disaster - halfway between the great ups and downs that make the easy headlines.
Second Vet: Are you asking us to cover non-events?
First Vet: No. We're already doing enough of that at press conferences in Washington and New York and parties in Beverly Hills - while neglecting the center of the country, both literally and metaphorically.
We're becoming better at covering the international third world. But we're becoming worse at covering this third world of our own. I'm just asking that journalism do what certain kinds of fiction writers and poets do - provide some sense of the day-to-day details and flavor of ordinary life. Journalism has become so sophisticated it's in danger of lacking respect for the ordinary, or even remembering where it is.
Second Vet: You claim poets do this?
First Vet: I thought you'd never ask. Here's part of a poem by Conrad Aiken:
This, then, is the humble, the
nameless - The lover, the husband and father,
the struggler with shadows, The one who went down under
shoutings of chaos ... This, then, is the one who implores,
as he dwindles to silence, A fanfare of glory ... And which of
us dares to deny him?
Second Vet: Boy, would I like to see a front page headline on that!
A Wednesday and Friday column