The Press: A Slanted Image?

THE men and women who decide what goes into our daily newspapers have just taken a searching look at themselves. The American Society of Newspaper Editors polled 1,800 newsroom executives and is satisfied that its ``scientifically constructed survey'' accurately reflects the views of reporters, editorial page writers, photographers, copy editors, and news executives. The bottom line is that despite the hours, the stress, and the pay, most newsroom employees find great satisfaction in their jobs. Some 58 percent of them said ``creativity and meeting the daily challenge of my job'' is the most rewarding aspect of their work. Another major factor: ``dealing with significant matters and having an impact.''

It is heartening that so many journalists still find the profession a special kind of calling, almost a priestly quest for truth. Yet the polls show that the credibility of journalists with the public is not high. Criticism still swirls about lack of fairness, arrogance, remoteness from the real interests of the people, and preoccupation with personal gain.

While venality may seem pretty academic to the lower-end, foot soldiers of journalism, the fact is that particularly in network television, and for the columnists and other print journalists who double as television mega-stars, the rewards are great. Journalists whose faces are well-known on the tube can make half a million dollars a year on the lecture circuit. Diane Sawyer can make $1.6 million a year with a new prime-time show and Time magazine, some of whose own scribes are not too shabbily paid, can well ask on its cover: Is she worth it?

One problem for television journalism is the corner-cutting going on. The slide from serious news coverage to news-entertainment, in an effort to boost ratings, is one example. It is the kind of pressure that induced ABC to produce a ``simulation'' on its nightly news program of American diplomat Felix Bloch handing over a briefcase of classified secrets to a KGB agent in Paris. ABC later made a lukewarm apology for not labeling the ``simulation'' clearly enough. But many newsmen consider it a major journalistic gaffe.

Ironically ABC's anchor, Peter Jennings, is one of television journalism's newsmen most privately critical of ethics in TV news, especially relating to the coverage of terrorism. ABC's concerns led the network recently to withhold from broadcasting a videotaped plea for help by American hostage Joseph James Cicippio. The network cited concern about being ``used as a vehicle by terrorists.''

But the problems are not all with television. Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin recently charged conflict of interest on the part of certain print journalists. He cited a Time magazine story on the question of congressional pay and the problems of former Speaker Jim Wright. The reporter who wrote about the ``shabby standards of Capitol Hill,'' claimed Mr. Obey was one who fought against further disclosure of income for reporters during a recent debate in the House Periodical Gallery. Obey also suggested that during hearings on generic drug pricing and drug-company profits, the hearings were being ``trashed'' by a reporter who worked for Time magazine, but who held large holdings of drug-company stock.

Despite the dedication of many journalists, the press can sometimes be its own worst enemy. The latest edition of Dateline, the annual review of the Overseas Press Club, offers a searing portfolio of prize-winning pictures of fathers carrying babies killed in disasters, and photos of the imprisoned, tortured, and war-wounded. There are graphic pictures of the emaciated.

Yet the adjacent article is headlined: ``Correspondents' choice - a sampler of journalists' favorite hotels and restaurants ... around the world.'' One drooling dispatch about a restaurant in Switzerland chronicles a 10-course meal that included a ``rack of lamb made in heaven'' and ``a cheese trolley the length of a Cadillac.''

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