Even When There's No News, the News Business Keeps Going

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the unspoken hazards of the news business is that some days, not to put too fine a point on it, there is simply no news.

Or rather, there is no looming disaster, no outbreaking war, no new peace, no gory courtroom drama, no miracle drug, no unseemly political spat--nothing to feed the massive communication industry's insatiable appetite for events that we have come to know as "news."

This is true even if somehow your morning paper is never blank and Dan Rather doesn't ever come on the air and say, with an unnatural calm: "Guess what folks. There was no big news today, and you get the day off. Courtesy of CBS News, we invite you to spend the next half-hour baking cookies with your kids."

No, even during what the media calls a slow news day, the "NewsHour" on PBS still lasts a full 60 minutes. The stentorian voices of all-news radio boom out urgently over the airwaves. As for newspapers, well, stories like the very one you are reading can suddenly surface on the pages of respectable publications around the country.

"What happens on a slow news day is that stories that are kind of timeless or featurey in quality or require a great deal of background material get pushed onto the front page," said Leo Bogart, author of "Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest."

"This can be very interesting, and my own bias is that the most important news is often not what we see or read but what's churning under the surface."

In this view, slow news sometimes means better news--more thoughtful news, more correct news, news that lasts more than 24 hours. Stories such as the first big change in meat inspections in 90 years suddenly move from a lesser spot on the front page of the New York Times to a larger headline that signals a historic event. In last week's Los Angeles Times, the front page had room for a story on how spring arrived earlier this year due to global warming.

Minus the daily drumbeat of news, according to this view, a softer, richer music can sometimes be heard underneath.

On the other hand, there are those like Syracuse University political science professor Thomas E. Patterson who sees less big news as meaning there is simply more little news to replace it.

"My own feeling is that in many cases, less is less, and not that less is more," he said. The focus on tobacco money in the presidential campaign seems to be an example. It's one political story, he explains, not "the" political story it seems to have become recently.

In the argot of the news trade, this is called hype, and it can sometimes be so well done that it is self-delusional. Journalists involved in a story begin to see it as the story.

"Journalists are very much in the business of persuading us that there's stuff going on and that it's crucial at all times," said Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University.

Others note that news has its cycles just like other human endeavors. The dog days of summer can mean the silly season for the serious media.

This year, for example, the movie "Independence Day" has helped sustain many news organizations over several of the summer's slowest weeks. Time and Newsweek magazines indulged in a superstar war on the covers of their July 4 issues. Time featured a geek from outer space; Newsweek decided on an earthling who starred in the movie.

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Most news organizations have remarked on the aliens landing--not the bony lizards from beyond but the humanoids stuck in long, hot lines outside the nation's crowded (and air-conditioned) theaters. Even the Los Angeles Times couldn't resist two "Independence Day" pictures on its front page on Sunday, July 7.

But if it's difficult for the print media when the news cupboard seems bare, broadcasters have an even tougher time.

"What do we do on a slow news day? You mean after the management suicides? After the funerals?" said Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN. There are three basic categories for news "rescue," he concluded.

"One is the what-ever-happened-to-that story, which will explain why the viewer is all of a sudden seeing a lot of stuff on Chad. Another is the reporter favorite--the story that nobody cared about when it was sent in anyway and it's been on the shelf and it's July and you have to be sure there's not a Christmas tree in the background. . . .

"And the third category is the clever PR [public relations] person story . . . and that's when Congressman Blop announces he's going to return to the salt standard--doing away with gold, silver and everything else," Turner continued. "And it's a legitimate story. But on this day, it's going to get a ride somewhere up there with peace on Earth."

The huge news machines set up to disseminate political news have had a particularly hard time of it this presidential campaign season. American politics has also been in something of a slump.

As part of the effort to shorten the world's longest election season, both parties had essentially picked their candidates by March. The full campaign was not supposed to start until September. That left a period that the Wall Street Journal has nicknamed "The Great Lull."

But political writers abhor a vacuum, and the nation's pundits, columnists and reporters have not been silent through this strange interlude. They have scanned the limited horizon and found other issues closer to home--the daily trickling of Whitewater, the first lady's talks with Eleanor Roosevelt, an internecine Republican war over abortion and Bob Dole's sparring match with NBC-TV "Today" show star Katie Couric.

"These issues have stayed with him because Dole is not very good at making the news his own way. He hasn't been able to use this slow period to set his own agenda," said Dick Pohlman, chief political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pohlman, like others, then has to root through the stacks of press releases and figure out how to fill his allotment of political news.

One piece that fit in this category, he said, was on a group of political forecasters who make elaborate models showing how to predict who's winning the election.

"That was a classic example of something that, if things were busy, there was no way I would have gotten that in the paper," Pohlman said.

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Herbert J. Gans, the Columbia University sociologist who wrote the journalism text "Deciding What's News," said that because what becomes news on slow days is different, maybe readers and viewers ought to know exactly how newsworthy the day really is.

"I've always thought that at the beginning of a program or on the front page of the newspaper, there should be a notation that says, on a scale from 1 to 10, whether this was a slow news day, or a fast news day or whatever's the opposite of a slow news day," he said. "They could say, 'Today was a 1 , so this is why all this is in there, and here's a quick list of all the things we left out.'

"But whether anybody would ever admit it was a slow news day, I don't know," he added. "I'm not sure this is admittable."

Ronald Brownstein is on vacation.

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