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The untapped power of the press.

The Untapped Power of the Press.

The Untapped Power of the Press. Lewis W. Wolfson. Praeger, $28.95. Wolfson's aim is to convince the press that it can make better use of its power. The way to do that, he says, is not more surprise and titillation, but more effective explanation of how government works. You have to hand it to Wolfson for avoiding the usual litany of press inadequacies that make up most books about news coverage. As the theme for a prescriptive, analytical book on the press, Wolfson's is the right one. The so-called "process' stories don't have to be boring.

The issue is how to make them interesting. Typically, they are not the first stories readers look for. Here, Wolfson's book reflects some of the same problems that plague the process stories he recommends. In a chapter on politics and elections, he suggests process questions that reporters should try to answer instead of repetitively tracking the horse race: "How much did noisy TV advertising attacks and counterattacks contribute to the public's apathy and failure to vote? What happens to the integrity of the political process over time if politicians keep concocting images, making promises and raising hopes that will never be fulfilled?' These are worthy questions; the problem is how to turn them into an actual story--a mechanical but nonetheless essential process that gets short shrift here. The usual way to build a non-breaking story is to get the "domes,' as they're sometimes called in the trade (egg-head is no longer in usage)--the professors and thoughtful practitioners who have puffed on their pipes and thought about the weighty issues.

The problem is that stories built around a lot of quotes from experts are often boring, no matter how good the quotes. Just stating the point or explaining the process and adding some quotes to legitimize the analysis isn't enough. That's why the best process stories have a strong narrative line, or classy writing, or some organizing principle that lifts them out of mere sober reflection.

Similarly, it would have been better if Wolfson had exhorted less, quoted less, recommended less, and illustrated his call for imaginative press coverage a little more, well, imaginatively. Instead of recommending a new center on government and media in Washington (there are already several think tanks around the country that chew over Big Questions), he might have dissected some process stories and suggested ways to make them more compelling. Still, as a primer on how the press can improve-- particularly the chapters on coverage of the judiciary and state and local government--this is a useful book.
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Alter, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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