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No Rest For The News Weary

March 08, 1998|FRAZIER MOORE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

After 15 years at ABC News, Jeff Greenfield was looking forward to a few days' grace when he got to Cable News Network in January. He figured on having time for unpacking cartons, filling out forms and learning to finesse his computer.

Only then would he make his first appearance as CNN's senior analyst, covering a sure-to-be-routine State of the Union address.

But without warning, just a week before the president faced Congress, "Monica Lewinsky" became a household name. Bill Clinton became a marked man. And Greenfield became very busy.

In his first hectic days, he would even be summoned from his ABC going-away party to appear on a CNN "Investigating the President" special. And, with only 36 hours to put it together, he moderated a live "town hall meeting" to explore how the media were covering the scandal.

"That's what it's been like," says Greenfield, whose cartons can wait. "It's been fun."

What's fun for Greenfield is observing not each isolated event, but the procession of news and the process of news gathering.

Early in his career, he was a speech writer for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and New York Mayor John Lindsay, and then a political consultant. After entering the world of television news at CBS two decades ago, he put those formative experiences to work analyzing politics and the media.

Though by any measure a veteran journalist, Greenfield explains: "I wasn't doing it until I was in my mid-30s, so I've always felt a little detached. Even from the midst of the New Hampshire primaries, how I'm trying to work is to take a step or two back from the process."

That's just what he would do as he confronted the Bill-and-Monica conflagration. From the scandal's first hours, TV coverage flared with words like "resignation" and "impeachment." But Greenfield, as usual, tried to keep a sensible distance from the blaze.

"There's a contrarian element to what I'm trying to do," he acknowledges. "I've been saying, 'Let's see where this takes us. No one's backing a Santini moving van up to the White House just yet.' "

Conveniently reflecting his contrarian style are his looks--those of a regular guy with a bookish streak--which set him apart from the typical newscaster. He has a crisp, assured delivery and a dry wit, yet he freely employs the term "stuff."

And he endorses the unspoken pledge a program like "Nightline" makes to the viewer. In the words of Greenfield, a regular contributor practically from that show's inception, "The [b.s.] level is going to be lower here than you might expect elsewhere."

He speaks fondly of his years at ABC News, and explains, "I just felt that I had done what I'd done there for a long time, and I was looking to do other stuff." Rejoining former ABC colleague--and current CNN president--Richard Kaplan had to be an incentive for making his move. But the menu of opportunities available at CNN, he says, "ABC couldn't match."

These include sitting in as host of the talk show "Larry King Live," which Greenfield--boldly donning a jacket and displaying no suspenders--did three times in one recent week.

And, from his Manhattan base, he will play a major role on one of a slate of weekly TV magazines linked with publications of CNN sibling Time Inc.

What will "CNN Newsstand/Time"--the broadcast he will anchor Sunday nights with Bernard Shaw--be like? Greenfield isn't sure yet. It won't be on the air until early summer. But the approach he envisions would place it in the company of high-end news efforts like "60 Minutes," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and, of course, "Nightline."

Will anybody watch such a thing on cable in prime time? "Coverage of substantive stuff in a way that's compelling, where you talk to your viewers like intelligent people? It's not a 'Seinfeld'-size audience, not even a 'Dellaventura'-size audience. But it would be big enough."

Big enough, he believes, without come-ons like this: "Before you buy a mattress," Greenfield riffs, "Is death lurking underneath? The next story could save your life!"

He ponders such journalistic carney-speak. "I think that's asking a lot of a television show," he concludes. "Unless the show is saying, 'Your apartment's on fire! Get out,' I don't see how we're going to save your life. We can offer you an hour that's worth your while. But I just think you're going to have to save your own life."

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