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Creating news by observing observers


SO someone calls -- this is several weeks ago -- and in the course of the conversation asks whether Susan Lucci finally would win an Emmy this year.


You mean you don't know who Susan Lucci is?

Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't. But then her name kept popping up.

On one of the local news programs, the anchor-dweeb asked the very same question, acknowledging that he had been inspired to do so by People magazine, which had devoted its cover to the mystery of why Ms. Lucci had never won this prize and whether she would do so now.

OK, hold on a minute. As it turns out, Susan Lucci is the star of "All My Children," an ABC soap opera that each week-day is watched by roughly 7 million people. That's a lot of people but is about 3.5 percent of the adult population, and no doubt some of its audience is pre-adult.

In other words, it wouldn't be surprising if most people have never heard of Susan Lucci.

Still, Ms. Lucci seemed important to the people at People, who themselves are less important than they may like to think. Each week, some 3.2 million people buy People. That's about 3 percent of the adult population, and while it's true that the magazine has more readers than buyers (it seems to be in every doctor's office in the United States), it is hardly a pervasive force. Maybe it has as many readers as "All My Children" has viewers. Maybe they're the same people.

All of which raises this question: Why does a story in a magazine most people don't read, about a television program relatively few people watch, become transformed into news, at least in the judgment (such as it is) of a big-city TV news executive?

And here is the answer: Because we in the communications dodge, like everyone else, have commenced taking ourselves too seriously.

Some things that happen in this business are really important. When the New York Times Co. buys the Boston Globe, that's news. It may even be news that "Jurassic Park" set all kinds of attendance records, though you'd think somebody would have noted that the incessant reporting of this phenomenon fed it, providing millions of dollars worth of free advertising for the movie.

But is David Letterman really worth all the fuss? OK, it was sort of interesting how he pitted two networks against one another, with poor Jay Leno caught in the middle. And because networks apparently can make a profit on their late-night shows, Mr. Letterman's decision qualified as a legitimate business story.

But the attention paid to this minor event made it seem as though it had deep significance, social as well as financial, as though David Letterman occupies an important niche in American culture.

He has a 2.9 rating. That may be good for late-night TV, but it still means that about 2.7 million of the almost 100 million U.S. households are tuned in to him each weeknight, and five will get you 10 that in most of those households one person is watching. That one person is likely to be a teen-ager because Mr. Letterman's humor rarely rises above the adolescent level. As a cultural factor, Mr. Letterman is a curiosity, not a force.

It isn't hard to see what has happened here. Years ago, someone figured out -- correctly -- that there is some importance to the way people get their information, and to what people do for fun. From this grew academic departments devoted to the study of both phenomena, from which departments emanated graduates, some of whom turned their theses into books. One or two of these books were even sensible and readable, inspiring still others to take up the study.

As a result, there are now as many (more?) people observing the observers as there are people observing the thing being observed. Years ago, reporters covered presidential campaigns. Then someone wrote a book about reporters covering presidential campaigns. Last year in New Hampshire, there were writers and academics writing about how the critics of the press were writing about the reporters who were covering the presidential primary. Who would argue that by 1996 there will not be some folks studying the studiers of the critics of the reporters? The campaign itself becomes ever more remote.

Here's how confused things have become: After Presidents Clinton and Boris N. Yeltsin met in Canada in April, many newspapers and television stations remarked about how the play "Walk in the Woods" had inspired a White House consultant to arrange for the presidents to take their own walk in the woods, just the two of them.

What nobody said, because nobody seemed to remember, was that the play, by Lee Blessing, was based on some real walks in the woods by Soviet diplomat Yuly Kvitsinsky and U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze in Geneva in 1982.

There is reality. Part of it is that Susan Lucci didn't win that Emmy. Just think how much will be written about her chances next year.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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