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'There are no pat answers that can be found in journalism textbooks.'

Around the Valley

March 25, 1987|DOUG SMITH

A man whose commentaries have punctured the exalted aura of presidents and foreign heads of state told students of California State University, Northridge last week that he still doesn't know the answer to his profession's fundamental question, "What is fair?"

Recently retired NBC commentator Edwin Newman, recognized by his colleagues as one of the best of journalists, came to CSUN as a guest of an old friend, Jerry Jacobs, who runs the university's broadcast-journalism program.

Jacobs worked with Newman as an NBC news producer in the 1950s and 1960s before coming west.

In an address to about 350 students, Jacobs' erudite friend resurrected behind-the-scenes anecdotes of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion as sharply as he drew vignettes of the fall of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and the Iran-\o7 contra\f7 affair.

But he left no doubt that, after 35 years as a foreign correspondent, national commentator, anchorman and critic of the arts and language, he has found no easy answers.

Newman made his strongest points by telling stories and asking questions.

First, he told the students to be aware that news is a business above all and that competition can easily lead to abuse and exaggeration.

Sometimes excess is easy to spot, as in a series of headlines he quoted from the New York Post during the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident.

"Nuke Cloud Spreading," he quoted. Then, "Nuke Leak Goes Out of Control," "Race With Nuclear Disaster" and, on the fourth day, "It's Looking Good."

Tough questions, he said, faced news editors concerning the use of film showing President Jimmy Carter telling Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran how much his people loved him and of Vice President George Bush praising Marcos for his "love of democratic principles."

What were they to do, Newman asked, when reporting on the overthrow of the shah and Marcos?

"How often should this footage be shown? How long did it remain relevant? How high did you put it in your story? . . . Well, maybe this answer seems not that helpful, but these things are matters of news judgment."

He moved on to television's coverage of the space-shuttle explosion.

"How long do you stay on?" he asked. "How many times do you show the videotape of the explosion? Then you have viewers calling in complaining. They want their sitcoms back on. After a disaster of this kind, how soon can you gracefully go back to sitcoms and quiz shows?

"How much coverage of the families was justified. The father of one of the Challenger crew members has spoken of the telephone calls that never stopped coming, always with the same questions. When does this kind of thing become cruel and excessive?

"There are no pat answers that can be found in journalism textbooks or anywhere else," Newman said.

Even simple words can confound, he said.

"In the matter of Iran and the contras, is it the Iran-contra affair . . . initiative . . . deal . . . scandal . . . scam . . . caper . . . fiasco . . . mess?" he asked. "I've heard them all used. They have different meanings, and they create different impressions. Which would you use?"

About 12:30 p.m., after a rock 'n' roll band warming up outside made further discourse almost impossible, Jacobs whisked Newman away from a persistent circle of student questioners. He promised to bring Newman by the news studio of campus radio station KCSN after lunch.

I wandered that way, thinking I might watch the famous reporter in his milieu.

There, about a dozen young people were doing what journalists everywhere do, making quick decisions on how to squeeze complex human experience into simple words.

Producer Deborah Appel was working on a story on AIDS, but was frequently interrupted by reporters shoving their typewritten stories in front of her.

She sank a hard look into the first sentence of a story submitted by a high-strung young man named Keith Hayes about a protest in Pacoima.

He had written: "The planned destruction of a Catholic-owned Little League playing field in Pacoima has been temporarily halted this morning because of a petition circulated by a parishioners' protest group."

Appel said she wanted more emphasis on the fact that "they had to call the police in to stop the people from throwing themselves in front of a bulldozer."

Then she challenged the word "destruction." Too strong.

And the phrase "Catholic-owned Little League playing field." Too cumbersome.

She began to rewrite it out loud:

"Plans to . . . pave over a Little League field in Pacoima were temporarily halted after . . . "

"Police intervention," Hayes interjected.

"No," Appel said, "a protest by residents."

"Police were called in," she continued.

That worried Hayes. He didn't know if they were called or just happened by.

"Call the church," Appel instructed. "If they stonewall you, we're going to leave it that way."

As Newman had said, these were questions of news judgment. The answers can't be found in any textbook.

The Times, by the way, also covered the Little League story. It used the word "destruction" and mentioned the police only in passing at the end.

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