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The Egocentric Press : MEDIA CIRCUS: The Trouble With America's Newspapers, By Howard Kurtz (Times Books: $25; 378 pp.)

May 16, 1993|John Balzar | Balzar is a Times national correspondent based in Seattle

Say, for instance, another of those goofy, ghastly runaway news events is underway. Maybe it's a doomsday cult, or a tyke caught deep down a drainpipe, or a political mischief-maker named David Duke, or maybe a Gennifer with a "G."

So the editors gather after a few days and pull on their chins thoughtfully, and one of them begins, "You know, this thing is being overblown to high heaven."

Another pipes up: "Hey, good story! The over-hype. Let's get Phillips on the city staff to write a 30-inch feature story about it."

The other editors chime in, "And maybe we can get a piece about the book and movie agents coming to the scene. . . . And Duffy in the statehouse bureau is looking into the political fallout. . . . We've got profiles ready to go. . . . The television writers will report on TV's reporting. . . . We'll have a poll that says people are bored to death with this. . . . And the President is issuing a statement from Camp David so the Washington Bureau will write the bejesus out of that."

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz is right.

Newspapers are not necessarily assembled for the convenience of readers. Sometimes they look to be as self-absorbed and preoccupied with the moment as the events and characters they chronicle.

Which certainly--and disappointingly--proves to be the case with Kurtz's own examination of the newspaper craft circa today. His "Media Circus" sets out to examine but ends up unintentionally exemplifying "the trouble with America's newspapers."

Without meaning to be, his is a well-researched, readably presented, richly anecdotal, timely case-in-point of at least some of the things that are maddening about today's journalism. That's to judge Kurtz by his own standards. And his standards are wise.

"We take a handful of stories and chew them over and over . . . until they are utterly devoid of flavor," Kurtz writes in his introduction.

And then he masticates the tasteless gruel of Donald Trump and Marla and Ivana ("no story of the '80s was bigger"), and Al Sharpton, and Kitty Kelly and Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, and Donna Rice and Gennifer Flowers and so on.

Kurtz delivers the lesson but doesn't take it: Hype cannot be diminished and brought into perspective by dwelling on it.

Kurtz digs himself in deeper when he writes, "We delude ourselves into believing that most people are as fascinated by the inner workings of government and politics as we are."

And then he recounts the fascinating profanity NPR's Nina Totenburg shouts at Sen. Alan Simpson in the parking lot after they appeared together on Nightline to discuss Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Hey wait a minute, you say, isn't this a book about newspapers? Well, in that case, how would you like to know what USA Today's White House Correspondent Jessica Lee thought when she got to see the Lincoln Bedroom at a George Bush state dinner for the President of Brazil?

The most disheartening flaw in "Media Circus," however, is Kurtz's failure to heed his own well-crafted warning about "my incestuous profession" and its engrossment with itself without regard for anyone else in information-saturated America.

He writes: "There is a fatal disconnection, a growing gap between editors and reporters on the one hand and consumers of news on the other. . . . For too long we have published newspapers aimed at other journalists--talking to ourselves, really, and to the insiders we gossip with--and paying scant attention to readers."

Unfortunately, this is exactly what Kurtz ends up doing in these pages. "Media Circus" is a closed cell of newspaper insider wisdom, gossip, mea culpas, criticism and conceit. Kurtz reports many exhaustive interviews with newspaper reporters and all variety of editors. Yet he seeks nothing--truly nothing--of the thinking, insight and perspective of newspaper readers themselves. Whether this is a book for a general audience or one aimed at those of us in and around the newspaper business, readers deserve a place between its covers.

Kurtz is a strong reporter, and from what I know, admired for his sources and output on this very difficult beat. It is one of journalism's most exacting jobs, and it breeds toughness into those willing to take it on.

He takes the lash to the press for its grim failure to grasp and convey the S&L catastrophe and the HUD scandal, and he writes well about the age-old seductions of power in today's climate of authoritarianism. Also, if you're interested, affirmative action pressures have reached the newsroom, and plagiarism now and again raises its unsettling specter, even at the best of newspapers.

But this close-up devotion to the breaking news about newspapers is different, more commonplace and easier than serious, stand-back reflection about this proud, troubled, fascinating, ink-stained institution that shaped America from the start--and which now frets so profoundly about its place in the nation's future.

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