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Reporter cities American Newspapers' flaw--too much hype--and then falls victim to it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MEDIA CIRCUS: THE TROUBLE WITH AMERICA'S NEWSPAPERS.

Howard Kurtz.

Times Books.

378 pages. $25. Say, for instance, another of those goofy, ghastly runaway news events is under way. Maybe it's a doomsday cult, or a tyke caught deep down a drainpipe, or a political mischief-maker named David Duke, or maybe a Gennifer with a "G."

So the editors gather after a few days and pull on their chins thoughtfully, and one of them begins, "You know, this thing is being overblown to high heaven."

Another pipes up: "Hey, good story! The over-hype. Let's get Phillips on the city staff to write a 30-inch feature story about it."

The other editors chime in, "And maybe we can get a piece about the book and movie agents coming to the scene. . . . And Duffy in the statehouse bureau is looking into the political fallout. . . . We've got profiles ready to go. . . . The television writers will report on TV's reporting. . . . We'll have a poll that says people are bored to death with this. . . . And the president is issuing a statement from Camp David so the Washington Bureau will write the bejesus out of that."

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz is right.

Newspapers are not necessarily assembled for the convenience of readers. Sometimes they look to be as self-absorbed and preoccupied with the moment as the events and characters they chronicle.

Which certainly -- and disappointingly -- proves to be the case with Mr. Kurtz's own examination of the newspaper craft circa today. His "Media Circus" sets out to examine but ends up unintentionally exemplifying "the trouble with America's newspapers."

Without meaning to be, his is a well-researched, readably presented, richly anecdotal, timely case-in-point of at least some of the things that are maddening about today's journalism. That's to judge Mr. Kurtz by his own standards. And his standards are wise.

"We take a handful of stories and chew them over and over . . . until they are utterly devoid of flavor," Mr. Kurtz writes in his introduction.

And then he masticates the tasteless gruel of Donald Trump and Marla and Ivana ("no story of the '80s was bigger"), and Al Sharpton, and Kitty Kelley and Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, and Donna Rice and Gennifer Flowers and so on.

Mr. Kurtz delivers the lesson but doesn't take it: Hype cannot be diminished and brought into perspective by dwelling on it.

Mr. Kurtz digs himself in deeper when he writes, "We delude ourselves into believing that most people are as fascinated by the inner workings of government and politics as we are."

And then he recounts the fascinating profanity National Public Radio's Nina Totenburg shouted at Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., in the parking lot after they appeared together on "Nightline" to discuss Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Hey wait a minute, you say, isn't this a book about newspapers? Well, in that case, how would you like to know what USA Today's White House correspondent, Jessica Lee, thought when she got to see the Lincoln Bedroom at a George Bush state dinner for the president of Brazil?

The most disheartening flaw in "Media Circus," however, is Mr. Kurtz's failure to heed his own well-crafted warning about "my incestuous profession" and its engrossment with itself without regard for anyone else in information-saturated America.

He writes: "There is a fatal disconnection, a growing gap between editors and reporters on the one hand and consumers of news on the other. . . . For too long we have published newspapers aimed at other journalists -- talking to ourselves, really, and to the insiders we gossip with -- and paying scant attention to readers."

Unfortunately, this is exactly what Mr. Kurtz ends up doing in these pages. "Media Circus" is a closed cell of newspaper insider wisdom, gossip, mea culpas, criticism and conceit. Mr. Kurtz reports many exhaustive interviews with newspaper reporters and all variety of editors. Yet he seeks nothing -- truly nothing -- of the thinking, insight and perspective of newspaper readers themselves. Whether this is a book for a general audience or one aimed at those of us in and around the newspaper business, readers deserve a place between its covers.

Mr. Kurtz is a strong reporter, and from what I know, admired for his sources and output on this very difficult beat. It is one of journalism's most exacting jobs, and it breeds toughness into those willing to take it on.

He takes the lash to the press for its grim failure to grasp and convey the savings and loan catastrophe and the Housing and Urban Development scandal, and he writes well about the age-old seductions of power in today's climate of authoritarianism. Also, if you're interested, affirmative action pressures have reached the newsroom, and plagiarism now and again raises its unsettling specter, even at the best of newspapers.

But this close-up devotion to the breaking news about newspapers is different, more commonplace and easier than serious, stand-back reflection about this proud, troubled, fascinating, ink-stained institution that shaped America from the start -- and which now frets so profoundly about its place in the nation's future.

But reflection is not Mr. Kurtz's mission. Of 378 pages in "Media Circus," only the concluding seven are devoted to his formula for reinvigorating newspapers. Which is 300 too few for me.

And how can we take him seriously when he says newspapers ought to offer more magazine-quality writing, more investigative journalism, more stories to satisfy experts? Oh yes, and more color photographs too, and, "If the wordsmiths must sacrifice a few words to accommodate more pictures, so be it."

That kind of advice is not new thinking -- it's the exasperating boilerplate passed down from one generation of sadistic desk editors to another: "Gomez! Need more background, more color, more facts, more art; rewrite it and pep it up. And, oh yes, it's way too long."

Finally, must today's critics always be self-consciously blind to the old-fashioned romanticism and achievements of newspapering?

"Our real bias is a bad-news bias," Mr. Kurtz writes. I agree. In my 25 years in the craft, this is the most persistent, and persuasive, lament of readers I've interviewed. But again Mr. Kurtz doesn't listen to himself, and he devotes less than a full paragraph to the subject before returning to the always-juicy bad news of the moment.

What's wrong with the press today is very much a matter of comparison to what is right and game and good about it.

For every glorification of an undeserving pop-celebrity like Donald Trump and every lazy lie repeated from the mouth of authority, every swarm of reporters stirred into frenzy by blood in the water, there is a story about some injustice exposed, an underdog given a helping hand, a painstakingly crafted obituary about a well-lived life, an account of high achievement in art or literature or athletics, a bewildering world brought closer into focus, or just a small human struggle faced nobly.

Maybe it's been too long since Mr. Kurtz wrote a story about a vandalized flower garden in an inner-city school and then counted as the $5, $10 and $50 checks rolled in from readers who were moved to try to help.

One thing that's wrong with America's newspapers is that we too easily forget this: Not always, and maybe not enough, but sometimes they are reborn every day with the idealized hope they will make better what they have written about and enrich those who read. Flaws and all, they're still the most nourishment you can buy with pocket change.

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