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The great media ship prepares to come about

HAVRE DE GRACE — HAVRE DE GRACE -- Readers of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey- Maturin novels about the Royal Navy in the time of Napoleon know, in excruciating detail, what an exacting and complex task it is to change the course of a full-rigged ship of the line by tacking -- passing her bow through the direction of the wind.

Frequently it was easier to accomplish the same end by "wearing ship," or passing the stern through the wind. In a smaller boat this is called a jibe and is generally uncomplicated, but in a square-rigger, even though it's easier and often safer than a tack, it's still a ponderous maneuver that might mean making a turn of 240 degrees to reach the desired course, instead of 120 degrees by tacking.

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Right now, as it tries to deal with prevailing political winds that are blowing a lot harder than anybody realized, the American media are in the process of wearing ship. Just what course it will end up on is far from clear, but it will certainly be a good many degrees to the right of where it was headed not so very long ago.

On a ship of the line, it takes many people to accomplish a course change. A few, perhaps including the officer of the deck calling out the new heading and the quartermaster turning the wheel, appear prominent, but most do their work almost invisibly, and the vessel's response is imperceptible at first. The media's course changes are much the same.

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Thus we see Stuart Taylor in The American Lawyer and William Powers in The New Republic writing about the media's double standard -- ignoring or minimizing Clinton scandals that would have been front-paged day after day had they occurred in a Republican administration. Their pieces echo earlier ones by conservative writers, but they will eventually have much greater impact.

Still, after they appear, nothing happens right away. There is some talk-show discussion, and in parts of the political community it is no doubt believed, or perhaps hoped, that the Taylor and Powers articles are only eccentricities which will soon be forgotten. But then, astoundingly, there appears the face of ,, Paula Jones on the cover of Newsweek.

And inside the magazine that week, there is a straightforward, comprehensive, and reasonably sympathetic story about her sexual-harassment suit against the president of the United States. There are no new facts in the story, which could easily have been published months before the November election. But without the work of Mr. Taylor and Mr. Powers, it might not have been published at all.

Editorial contrition

The words mea culpa were nowhere to be found in the Newsweek article, but there was a faint and touching sense of editorial contrition. The story was written, in fact, by a Newsweek journalist who had earlier dismissed Ms. Jones, with the quite unconscious snobbery so prevalent in the initial coverage of her complaint, as "a sleazy woman with big hair out of the trailer parks."

At that point, it was finally apparent that the big media ship was indeed coming around. Among the observers on shore, there were triumphant snickers from the right and anguished bleats from the left. But there were also some quiet sighs of relief from those of differing persuasions who appreciate the American press as an institution, who maybe even love it despite all its weaknesses and excesses, and who had truly feared that it was headed for the mother of all wrecks on the reef of public opinion.

The dynamics of the still-uncompleted course change are interesting, because they work at several levels. Economics are involved; even in the intellectually insulated world of the big media, market forces can still be felt. If ratings and readership are in free fall, along with journalism's standing in the polls, there are some serious incentives for media corporations to make some adjustments in the interest of survival.

But less crass considerations are involved too, including intangibles like pride and professionalism. Not everyone in the big media, it turns out, has yet been irremediably politicized. The old concepts of fairness and neutrality may have been battered by bouts of media advocacy, but they still exist.

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The press not only wants to survive economically, it wants to be respected. And it not only wants to be respected, it wants to be able to respect itself. It's heartening to see this demonstrated, because for a while there, it wasn't clear whether it was still true.

It isn't, of course, obligatory that all journalists now defend Paula Jones, or rush to savage Bill Clinton. Some, especially those on the right, will do so. Others, especially those on the left, will continue to serve as the White House's unofficial palace guard. The public doesn't mind that. But from most of those in the business of reporting the news, it expects more fairness and professionalism than it's been getting of late.

I think that's exactly what's in store. But we won't know for sure until the sails are trimmed, the quartermaster steadies the wheel, and we see the big ship safely settled on a new course.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 1/23/97


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