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Twice-Told Tales of the U. S. Press : THE PRESS by Ellis Cose (William Morrow: $22.95; 415 pp.)

April 09, 1989|David Shaw | Shaw, who writes about the media for The Times, has also written two books b on the media

In the last 15 years, the press has become almost as likely to be the subject of news as the maker of news. The Washington Post demolishes the Nixon presidency. The Miami Herald derails the Gary Hart campaign. Dan Rather and George Bush fight. Time and Warner merge. Sam Donaldson jumps on Ronald Reagan. Diane Sawyer jumps from CBS to ABC.

Public interest in the press--the "media"--is not always benign. Many readers, viewers, voters, citizens are downright hostile toward the press. But hostility, like curiosity, sells books. So we have Woodward and Bernstein on "All the President's Men" and "Final Days," David Halberstam on "The Powers That Be," Peter Boyer on "Who Killed CBS?" Peter Prichard on "The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today."

Comes now Ellis Cose's "The Press."

Bad timing.

If Cose had written his book, say, 20 years ago, he would have had the field pretty much to himself. Instead, he's too little, too late.

Cose does offer a much-needed, if all-too-brief discussion of newspapers and minorities--the coverage, hiring and promotion thereof--as a leitmotif of sorts running through virtually every section of his book. He writes with sensitivity and insight about specific black and Hispanic editors and reporters and the problems they've encountered in the white-controlled media.

Cose--who formerly worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today and the Detroit Free Press-- also provides an excellent and provocative prologue to his book, raising a number of important questions about the future of the press: Can newspapers survive as both mass and class publications with today's increasingly fragmented audience? Is a "new bottom-line mentality"--and the dwindling number of family-owned newspapers--a threat to journalistic integrity? Does today's corporate environment at many newspapers mean less tolerance for "oddballs and erratic visionaries--brilliant though they may be"?

Unfortunately, Cose doesn't really address these questions.

For general-interest readers who have some interest in the press but have read little about it, his book is perfectly adequate as a casual introduction to the contemporary press giants, both individual and institutional. But given its purported scope, "The Press" is ultimately an insubstantial volume. Cose tries to examine the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the two largest newspaper chains in the United States, Gannett and Knight Ridder, in 356 breezily written pages. Gay Talese used 526 pages to write about the New York Times alone in "The Kingdom and the Power."

Length is not the sole (or even primary) requisite for a good book, of course. Several of the best books I've ever read were shorter than "The Press." But the story of the modern media is complex, and it requires context and perspective; Cose provides too little of either. Moreover, his writing is so devoid of any special flair or insight that anyone who's read Halberstam, Talese, Prichard or virtually any of the other major media books of recent years will probably find this book a bit of a yawn. In fact, anyone who's sufficiently interested in the press to read the "Press" sections of the weekly newsmagazines regularly probably knows almost as much about the press as he's likely to learn from Cose.

Cose plows mostly old ground. Here, again, is the story of Philip Graham's suicide and his widow, Katharine's initially uneasy (but ultimately very successful) ascension at the Washington Post. Here, again, is the story of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of Janet Cooke and Deep Throat, of the transformation of the Los Angeles Times under Otis Chandler, the re-invention of the New York Times under A. M. Rosenthal, the invention of USA Today by Al Neuharth.

It's not that "The Press" is a bad book, just an unnecessary book. Oh, it has a few mildly diverting anecdotes all right--like the one about Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, resolving his problem of occasionally writing numbers backward (73 for 37, say) by "getting a calculator that talked." But even Cose's few good anecdotes are generally treated superficially.

In another, more telling anecdote, Cose recounts the reaction of Los Angeles Times editors the day James Meredith was shot 30 miles south of Memphis in 1966.

"How long will it take you to get there?" The Times' national editor asks his Atlanta bureau chief.

"About four hours," the bureau chief replies.

"Charter a plane," the editor says.

Another editor "nearly fell from his chair," Cose writes, "the moment marking, for him, the point at which The Times entered its golden age."

Perhaps. But with so little background or analysis, such anecdotes finally reveal little.

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