What's news, and what's not


Washington -- IS LARRY King a journalist? Is Ted Koppel a talk-show host? Is there any difference between the two?

Until recently, the answer to the first question was "no"; the answer to the second equally "no"; and to the third a resounding "yes."

Mr. King was unmistakably the king of talk, but no one expects him to do a stand-upper on arms control from the State Department. Mr. Koppel was the journalist, who covered wars, politics and diplomacy for ABC News before the Ayatollah Khomeini launched the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and -- unwittingly -- the exceptional "Nightline."

Now, nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, after radical changes in technology and journalistic norms, there is a disturbing blurring of the line between news and entertainment, between reporting and editorializing, between fact and opinion, between "old" and "new" media -- between Mr. Koppel and Mr. King. The result is confusion in the news room and the living room.

Where do people get their news? Indeed, how do they even define news? These are not rhetorical questions, for in this age of television, in which image is sovereign and perception is reality, answers are increasingly elusive. As we approach the 500-channel world, the old news guidelines for determining what's important and reliable grow ever more fuzzy.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite used to be enough -- "the most trusted man in America," he was called. But now, bewilderingly, there are hundreds of sources -- from traditional news shows to call-in talk shows, from electronic town meetings to faxes, 800- and 900-numbers and on-line bulletin boards, from "Capitol Gang" and "Meet The Press" to religion programs that mix faith with politics.

Add to this avalanche of information newspapers and tabloids, magazines and newsletters. You can see that the difficulty of distinguishing real from fake has become almost insurmountable. "News" may be news, but it may also be gossip, half-truth, outlandish fiction, scandal or sensational and unsubstantiated tidbits, masquerading as "news." News is no longer an easily definable commodity.

More Americans get their print "news" from People magazine, the National Enquirer or the Star tabloid than they do from, say, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times or the Washington Post. On television, according to one recent focus group, people say they get their "news" or "information" from such programs as "Hard Copy" and "Rescue 911" rather than the three networks' evening news shows.

In 1959, according to a Roper Organization poll, 50 percent of Americans learned about their country and the world from the evening news shows on TV. By 1991, 81 percent got their "news" from television -- but no longer from the network news. Instead, they turn to the glossy pseudo-news programs or mercurial talk shows.

This is crucially important, because the standards of journalism on these pseudo-news shows or a talk show, even a serious one, are substantially different from standards applied in a traditional news program or newspaper.

Instead of two sources, a talk show may go with only one source -- or none, prefacing items with, "the rumor is." Responsible print journalists do not pay for news, and, as a rule, neither do responsible broadcast journalists; and they are careful about checking facts or fronting for special interests. Not so for the new "media," where proper standards are only regarded as obstacles to bigger headlines and profits.

Again, what's news? When President Clinton appears on "Larry King Live" and answers questions about foreign policy, he may well end up making news -- the kind that is spread on the front page of the next day's newspapers.

Does that mean "Larry King Live" is a news program, and Mr. King is a journalist? After all, Mr. King did participate in the time-honored process of news-gathering. He asked the questions that produced the headlines. So why not? As Mr. King told a recent group, "I guess you could say I'm now a journalist." Or, as his boss at CNN, Ted Turner, jokingly told the National Press Club, "I'm a quasi-journalist."

Ironically, even as the status of journalists plummets in popular esteem -- according to one poll, only 15 percent of the American people have "confidence" in the news media -- many non-journalists display an interest in joining the priesthood of journalism, presumably to enjoy its power and privileges as well as its obvious notoriety. Even Ross Perot, the zany billionaire, has brought his Texas twang to talk radio. The editor of Talkers magazine says that in the past decade or so the number of talk-radio stations has risen from 250 to 1,000, and the number of talk shows to 8,000. Seventy percent of the hosts are identified as "conservatives." Enter Rush Limbaugh.

Talk radio, though it has been around for decades, erupted as a powerful force in American culture and politics only in recent years. It has now become the hottest spot on the dial, a place where opinion gallivants as fact and fast-talking hucksters can attract everyone from Mr. Clinton to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., to answer questions from a cynical, frustrated populace.

It is hard, almost impossible, for even the most intelligent listener to recognize fact as fact and news as news. It all sounds the same -- especially when interviewees are such distinguished people.

Can journalism ever recover its former authority? Can a new Cronkite emerge in today's world of rip-and-slash competition in TV news? Can "news" once again be news -- easily identifiable?

Perhaps -- but it will require a monumental struggle, and the outcome is far from assured. Journalistic ethics have crumbled, along with medical and legal ethics, as popular confidence in the major institutions of American life has taken a nose dive. Meanwhile, what is needed is a new commitment to honest, old-fashioned journalism -- and to courage.

When the Gennifer Flowers story first broke in a supermarket tabloid and "Nightline," without any independent reporting, went with the story -- thereby lending it a large measure of legitimacy -- editors and anchors of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," like so many other journalists, wondered whether they, too, should go with the story. A producer argued that the Flowers story was, after all, "out there."

Yes, anchor Linda Wertheimer responded, "But that doesn't mean it has to be in here."

Marvin Kalb is a visiting professor of press and public policy at George Washington University. He was chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC. His new book, "The Nixon Memo," will be published this month by University of Chicago Press.

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