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Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers.

Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers

By Howard Kurtz

Times Books

464 pages; $25

When MBAs Rule The Newsroom

by Doug Underwood

Columbia University Press

240 pages; $29.95

When the Washington Post set ace investigative reporter Howard Kurtz loose on the media beat, it was like giving Bart Simpson the run of the principal's office. The prolific and irrepressible Kurtz has had a merry time mucking around inside the thin-skinned press establishment.

But true to the investigative reporter's reformist nature, Kurtz has a higher interest than out-of-school tale tolling. He finds troubling patterns in the profession that he loves, and his goal seems nothing less than to save the Fourth Estate from its own frightful pretensions and peccadillos.

"There is a cancer eating away at the newspaper business--the cancer of boredom, superficiality and irrelevance," he writes, "and radical surgery is needed."

While his eye locks onto the big picture (the "smell of death" brought on, in his view, by dumbing down newspapers to pacify marketers and monopolists), he nails home his points with specifics, such as his critical look at the demise of the Arkansas Gazette, and how Jack Anderson was intimidated from pursuing the Charles Keating banking scandal by the threat of a suit.

A merciless and indefatigable reporter, Kurtz is a Nexis wizard, a Rolodex virtuoso, the kind of vacuum-cleaner reporter to whom sources can't wait to spill the latest outrage. He zestfully serves it up, writing in a pungent, get-a-load-of-this style somewhere between Edna Buchanan and Jimmy Breslin, downloading example after delicious example with a wicked eye for the absurd.

Kurtz relishes irony, such as when "a New York Times reporter had plagiarized part of a story about plagiarism!" He treats readers to examples of the almost surreal excesses of the media age, such as when Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), interrupted in mid-speech on the House floor one night, agreed to cut short his remarks so C-SPAN could switch to a charity roast of journalist Robert Novak.

On a more institutional level, Kurtz has a way of pointing out provocative juxtapositions, contrasting the press' suck-up coverage of the Donald Trump era to its disgraceful neglect of the housing and savings and loan scandals. As the fuse burned toward racial explosions in Los Angeles and other cities, newsrooms were yuppifying and losing touch with society at large. As the "tabloidization of the American media" left everyone else's privacy in tatters, journalists were mum about their own "glass house" scandals of plagiarism and sexual harassment.

Tough though he may be, Kurtz remains more affectionate than angry about his profession. Perhaps his greatest strength is that he manages to come across as so fair-minded.

The book seems, and probably is, a kind of gussied-up extension and updating of many stories Kurtz himself has covered. But it adds up to something more: a succinct diagnosis of what ails newspapers, and some thoughtful ideas for their redemption.

Kurtz scorns (hastily, I believe, but artfully) today's tendency toward catering to reader desires, which he says serves "to de-emphasize news and replace it with a feel-good product that is more frivolous, less demanding, more like televison." He believes that "newspaper salvation lies in the opposite direction, with detailed, compelling reports on controversial subjects that simply can't be found elsewhere."

This has the makings of the standard, old fogey's grumpy nostalgia. But to his credit Kurtz isn't nearly that superficial. He produces a considered list of specifics to inject passion and daring into journalism: Make people mad, toll them things the authorities don't want them to know, make them laugh, break the shackles of mindless objectivity, turn the writers loose, set the agenda.

"Newspapers have no God-given right to exist," he writes. "It is a time for boldness, for risk-taking, for once again reinventing the daily newspaper."

It turns out that Kurtz isn't Bart Simpson at all. He's the principal. A principal with an attitude, certainly. But one who sighs at our failure to live up to our promise, and then keeps on goading us forward.

Like Howard Kurtz, Doug Underwood believes newspapers are following the business-siders down blind alleys. A former reporter now teaching at the University of Washington, he examines the impact that "market-oriented journalism" is having on both the newsroom and the people working there.

Using surveys, visits and his own observations, Underwood documents the trend toward more aggressive blending of journalistic and marketing goals.

Internally, the effects prove worrisome, Underwood reports. Journalists lament that "MBA-type managers...are eroding the idealism and undermining the traditional values of the profession."

More surprising, perhaps, is Underwood's conclusion that there is little substantial evidence, either from scholars or professionals, that the new directions succeed with readers.

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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