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The Changing Face of the News, 1985-1990
By Edwin Diamond
MIT Press, 244 pages, 1991

In this collection of 23 essays, most of which appeared as occasional pieces in New York magazine, Diamond assesses the influence of the news media — principally television — during the late Reagan and early Bush years. His analysis ranges from the rise of CNN and the fall of network news, to news coverage of public issues like AIDS and drugs, "the media as moral police," and the coverage of the 1988 campaigns.

In the past five years, Diamond concludes, TV news coverage has progressively worsened, largely because the three major networks have downsized their staff and budgets. The brightest spot in recent years has been the emergence of CNN, he righly observes, which has now become the "network of record" in TV news — despite its "generally flat and unremarkable level of writing" and it's comparatively second-rate coverage. The major networks, unable to compete with CNN which is on 24 hours a day, and local news broadcasts which precede theirs in the evenings, have resorted to increasingly reflective news coverage. "Besides cutting costs," Diamond writes, "the newfound love for an analytical approach acknowledges the networks' inability to compete for spot news."

The immediacy of news today has also put pressure on the print media. "What purpose does a morning paper serve," Diamond wonders, "when television gives the news the night before?" Newspapers have to compete by being more visual, as indicated by bigger pictures in the New York Times, and more contextual by offering formats such as the "ticktock" — newspaper jargon for a comprehensive chronological reconstruction of a big event. "Editors have to go where television will not go, or can not go," he writes, "to explanation, analysis, point of view."

Diamond also considers such topics as the early reporting on AIDS, in which Victorian prudery was the rule, and the presentation of people in the news as images rather than as authentic individuals, citing the altered public perception of Nancy Reagan engineered by her husband's "secretary of symbolism," Michael Deaver. He discusses how news organizations are often blinded by the stereotypes that they helped to create; his examples include the Mafia, the Russians, and the Japanese.

In a chapter called "The Vanishing Documentary," Diamond points out that a kind of "class-split has developed in television," where substantive information programming is losing out to "punchy infotainment specials." The former, all but gone from the main networks and prime time, are guaranteed small, elite audiences, while the vast majority of viewers turn to "information-poor" newsmagazines and entertainment programs. "It is as if two societies, and two sources of public discourse, have come into being in the country," he observes.

This loosely structured collection of essays is less concerned with communication theory — ideological bias, agenda-setting, issue-framing, etc. — than with straight-forward media analysis. Diamond's main concern is better TV news — "there are just a few ways to do good journalism, and many ways to do bad journalism" — not sociology. As such, this volume is full of "insider" perspectives and insights but lacks a unifying structure or theme beyond the one alluded to in the book's title.

Copyright 1992 by Scott London. All rights reserved.