Power of the Tabloid Press Is Hot Topic at Brown University

As `entertainment' gains, news suffers, say mainstream media

DON HEWITT is angry at George Stephanopoulos. The executive producer of CBS's ``60 Minutes'' leans forward with good-natured umbrage and says to the senior adviser to President Clinton, ``George, explain to me why the Clintons are in love with Larry King, CNN, and MTV.... You won't go near us. We are on the blacklist at the White House.''

Grinning boyishly, Mr. Stephanopoulos denies the presence of a White House enemies list.

Interrupting him, Mr. Hewitt says, ``The last time Clinton was on `60 Minutes' he was Gary Hart,'' in hot water over allegations of marital infidelity. ``And [then] that night he became the nominee.... You have not talked to us since that day.''

Hewitt and Stephanopoulos faced each other at the 15th annual Brown University/Providence Journal conference titled: ``America's Media: Are They Out of Control?'' ending today. Their exchange was not just about access to the president, or recalling the impact of the ``60 Minutes'' program in 1991 when candidate Clinton responded to questions about Gennifer Flowers.

Behind their exchange were the wrenching competitive forces challenging and changing the media today. The heart of the matter, says Hewitt, is that as the ``entertainment media'' have gained in popularity, journalistic standards have fallen.

Supermarket tabloids, radio talk shows, and sensational TV shows thrive on the provocative and bizarre. Huge audiences are listening, watching, and reading. Some 2.8 million copies of The Star, a supermarket tabloid, are sold each week. An estimated 5.2 million households watch ``A Current Affair'' every night.

As a result, newspapers, TV magazines, and network news broadcasts are pressured to include tabloidlike, off-beat stories in their lineup of serious fare.

``Larry King is a talk show,'' Hewitt says. ``Bill Clinton can go on Larry King and MTV and get a lot of patsy questions.... Somebody has to hold [politicians'] feet to the fire and ask the tougher questions in a campaign [because] someday someone you don't like is going to use the talk shows to become president.''

While TV entertainment shows emphasize a more sensational content, their newslike format - with anchors, reporters, and taped interviews - give the appearance of being news. But according to tabloid editors, the subjects are often paid thousands to tell their stories.

Editors like Robert Feldman of ``A Current Affair'' admit to being as ``much of a businessman as a journalist'' with the objective of attracting and keeping as many viewers as possible. Although the networks have the same motive, the difference is that entertainment shows never say whether or not interviews were paid for.

For Richard Kaplan, editor of The Star, the mainstream press has indeed become more tabloid in much of its coverage. ``But it should go back to doing what they do best, and leave me alone,'' he says during another panel at the conference.

``I consider myself a responsible journalist,'' he says. ``The Star is 100 percent a celebrity newspaper. We don't do Siamese twins.... We are giving [readers] what they want. I cover the world as it is, not as I want it to be.''

Editors on tabloid TV shows at the conference denied there was anything wrong with being entertaining. ``I'm not sure what `tabloid' is,'' says Mr. Feldman. ``Is it `48 Hours'? Or `Eye to Eye'? Is Connie Chung's show tabloid? Is it a crime to be entertaining? For a lot of holier-than-thou print types, I guess it is.''

While supermarket and TV tabloids may have influenced the mainstream press, some critics say the impact of CNN on news has been revolutionary. The traditional ``news cycle'' no longer exists. CNN is collecting and presenting news 24 hours a day.

Stephanopoulos says that many of the people who watch CNN are news editors, network TV producers, members of Congress, and the president's staff. ``Washington creates a kind of echo chamber,'' he says, ``and [these people] believe that by the time the evening news is on, all the news ... has already been seen by everybody.''

For Tom Rosenstiel, media critic for Newsweek, what this leads to is nightly news shows that are unsure of themselves. So they offer ``context and interpretation to get to the real meaning of events in two minutes,'' he says. ``We never play it straight anymore in news. Every story is spun to have second- or third-day analysis on the first day.''

By the next morning, when newspapers hit the stands, say Mr. Rosenstiel and Stephanopoulos, the nightly news has set the agenda for these papers.

``The [mainstream press] interpret stories even when there is nothing to interpret,'' Rosenstiel says, ``and on the other hand, we are increasingly imitative of the people we think we are losing market share to: TV shows.''

``Our standard is, `How important this is story?' '' Rosenstiel says, ``and [their] standard is, `How interesting is this story?' ''

But Louis Boccardi, president and CEO of the Associated Press, cautions against predictions on the demise of newspapers. ``The audience for three network news shows is about 36 million every night,'' he says, ``and about 62 million copies of newspapers are sold every day.''

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