The press is on


Albany, N.Y. -- THE FIERCE fight in Congress and state houses redefining basic political values unsurprisingly has led to a simultaneous campaign to control how the battle is being reported.

Republicans, radical in a dynamic way reminiscent of the earlier days of their party, continue to have as their champions the voices of talk radio. But that only attracts a certain crowd. Now they are after the wider audience served by the establishment media.

That's what is behind Speaker Newt Gingrich's claim that socialists dominate the nation's newspaper editorial boards. As a remedy, he called on businesses to put their advertising dollars only where their political self-interest is served.

It is a campaign of intimidation to get media owners to curb the news coverage of the speaker's personal activities. Further, the attacks are intended to force the media to view legislative developments through the prism of the Republican agenda.

If it takes absurdist statements about editorial boards, Speaker Gingrich is ready to don the clown's belled cap. As a college teacher and intellectual, he's supposed to be bright enough to know better.

The same sort of public opinion polls that helped him to devise the Contract with America are continuing to show that while people still support the message, they increasingly dislike its foremost messenger. He gets lower marks for honesty and trustworthiness than for being smart and effective. His best defense being an offense has clearly misfired. Instead of building on his base once he became speaker, 100 days later Newt Gingrich's popularity lags.

Shrill calls for fairness by the media often are camouflage for seeking news reportage that provides aid and comfort to fellow partisans.

The last thing a politician wants is even-handed coverage by the news media. That is as true for the Democrats as Republicans. Not too long ago, President Clinton was making loud public complaints of how unfairly the news media had treated him and his programs. "You get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding," he said then, an observation mirrored these days by Republicans.

Newt Gingrich climbed to power painstakingly attacking every ethical failing he could discover among Democrats. Now, when those standards are applied to his actions and business deals, he explodes in righteous indignation.

Only when opinion surveys continue to show that he failed to explain away his multi-million dollar book deal with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has vast business interests susceptible to congressional action, did Mr. Gingrich concede that maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all.

In New York's capital, state Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno has resorted to name-calling to deflect press coverage as the hard-edge impact of government cuts take on real-life form.

It is difficult, more likely not possible, for a conscientious newspaper to keep coverage of contentious, emotional issues in balance every day. But over the course of a short time, that is practically feasible. The result is that one day one side denounces the reporting, and the next week the other side.

The public should recognize that attempts to control the media are a normal part of a high-stakes game.

Harry Rosenfeld is editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.

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