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Jewish World Review May 11, 2000 /6 Iyar, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Bill Clinton's next career -- NOW IT'S CLEAR, after Bill Clinton's appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, what he ought to do after leaving the White House: become a press critic. Really.

In just a few, offhand remarks, the president summed up the challenges facing old-fashioned print journalism in the new era of the Internet, and charted an honest, self-respecting and useful course for the press. Really.

He touched on the temptations to be avoided in newspapering and the duty to be done, all the while speaking with humor, insight and an attachment to principle and taste. Really.

The president's observations on the press were clear, concise, incisive and even inspiring. In short, I agreed with them. (Have you noticed that, too --that the opinions we agree with tend to be remarkably well put?)

The president was asked to criticize the press by Tom Koenninger of The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash. With his tenure in office drawing to a close, the president was reminded, this would be his last opportunity to address the editors.

"No, this is not my last opportunity,'' Bill Clinton replied. "It's just the last opportunity I'll have when anybody will pay attention to me. It's ironic, you know, when I can say what I think, nobody will care anymore.''

Bill Clinton's response showed that he understands perfectly the predicament of any lame-duck president, and that he can sum it up with good humor. In office, political considerations may temper a president's words. Out of office, they won't matter. It's a well-known paradox of power, but seldom has it been put so concisely. And candidly.

The president also understands the paradoxical nature of the problem facing editors today. "I think it's hard to run a newspaper today,'' he said, "in an environment in which you're competing with television news, Internet news sources, radio news and entertainment which abuts on the news, and all the lines are being blurred, both the technological lines and the categorical lines.''

The natural temptation for newspapers is to imitate the electronic competition, to make ourselves over in their image, to become a kind of television in print, or another database or chat room.

But as the president told the editors, "It seems to me that one of the things that you have to fight against ... is sort of getting stuck in a place that amplifies the sensational and the emotional, which carves out a certain market share in the short run, but may undermine the fundamental ... purpose of a newspaper in the long run.''

In a few words, the president had summed up the gannettized Arkansas Gazette's fatal error -- or one of them, anyway -- in its newspaper war with the Arkansas Democrat. Its new publishers, editors, designers and hotshots in general were so anxious to glamorize the old Gray Lady of Arkansas journalism that they forget what had made her great.

I was happily out of the line of fire at the time, writing editorials for the Pine Bluff Commercial 40 miles down the road. At the time, I thought the Democrat was being mighty uppity, thinking it could whip the fabled Arkansas Gazette -- until the day I realized I was going to have to subscribe to the Democrat if I wanted to know what was going on in the state.

The new masterminds at the Gazette went for the frills and forgot the fundamentals -- like putting news and opinion first, instead of somewhere down the list along with entertainment and pizzazz. They forgot hard news, solid opinion, old-fashioned enterprise and why they had attracted the loyalty of discerning, kiver-to-kiver readers like Bill Clinton in the first place.

To quote the president, "usually my only source of news is the newspaper. I'm sort of a troglodyte media person -- I actually sit down and read the papers. ... And I think this whole communications revolution, which I think on balance a positive thing, runs the risk of giving people more information than they have ever had before without adequate perspective or framework or balance or background and back-and-forth.''

Mr. President, your fellow troglodytes can only say Amen.

A computerized swirl of information and opinionation now covers American society like so much shiny tinsel. Amid the digital tumult, newspapers need to remember our characteristic strengths, rather than try to become another version of television, or a retail reflection of the Web.

Newspapers have some distinct advantages we tend to forget. We can separate news and opinion, labeling each clearly. Like a good old-fashioned cafeteria, we can offer different dishes for different tastes -- but insist that they all come up to a certain standard of quality. This is called editing (it goes with reporting and commenting), and it saves the reader the trouble of sifting out the wheat from the mountain of electronic chaff out there.

Or as Bill Clinton told the editors, "even if you feel beleaguered now, the nature of what is unfolding may make newspapers and old-fashioned newspaper work more important in the next few years.'' Judgment and discrimination are never so valuable as in their absence.

If the Internet had been around forever, and somebody had just invented a way to reduce its torrent of data to a well-edited, easily readable, portable journal that put the news in perspective while commenting on it, think of the sensation such a product would cause.

Imagine: No laptop, no modem, no scrolling, no computer expertise required. No fuss, no muss, no glare. All the work would be done for you. You pay your subscription, and you take your choice of what to read, either with interest or a carload of salt.

What a luxury such an amazing product would be. Imagine having a stable of writers, reporters, commentators and editors at your service every morning, all of them rooted in your own state, talking your own language, focusing on your own community and even creating one. What a service. We could call it a newspaper.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate