2 New Books Take News Media to Task Sen. Bill Bradley, Journalist Say Press Too Conflict-Driven

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LACK OF PROPORTION, an obsession with celebrity and a disregard for any issue that cannot be told in terms of conflict or the next election. Those counts and more make up the indictment of modern news media practice in a new book by prominent journalist James Fallows.

Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., in his own new book, puts the problem more succinctly. He describes a news-management credo that he says got its start with local television but is spreading ever further: "If it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks."

Fallows will be in St. Louis today to discuss his book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," with a book signing set for 7 p.m. at Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue.

Bradley will be discussing his book, "Time Present, Time Past," in an appearance at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 at the Library Ltd. bookstore, 7700 Forsyth Boulevard in Clayton.

In interviews last week, both authors cited coverage of the State of the Union Address as a good example of what is wrong with politics and the news media.

Bradley said the notion that the State of the Union was the opening shot in the 1996 campaign - and that Clinton had scored a crucial victory over his likely Republican opponent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole - was absurd.

"I do not think that come October, if Bob Dole is the Republican nominee, that someone will vote for Clinton because Dole looked tired at the State of the Union," Bradley said.

Had he been writing the story, he said, "I would have said that the president delivered his State of the Union address and did not mention the word `race' once. And then I would have gone on from there," to discuss the implications of that omission in the year since Clinton's last State of the Union, a year of O.J. and the Million Man March.

Fallows, Washington editor of the Atlantic Monthly, says coverage of this year's address was an improvement, barely, over last year's - when the news media uniformly panned Clinton for an 81-minute recitation of policy initiatives that turned out to be a hit with the public. But Fallows said he would like to have seen at least something on new college scholarships or V-chip television controls or beefed-up border patrols - the specific policy proposals, that is, that Clinton made.

"What I'm suggesting is a matter of proportion," Fallows said. "Should the political coverage be 100 percent of the total, or 60 percent? There might have been more emphasis on what he actually said."

Proportion is what Fallows suggests the news media no longer have.

In his book Fallows relates the news media reaction when Bradley announced last August that he was stepping down from the Senate after three terms. Bradley cited his frustration with the inability of modern politics to get beyond partisan posturing and deal with the real concerns of ordinary people. Those concerns were largely ignored in the coverage of Bradley's announcement.

Fallows said Bradley's interview with Judy Woodruff of CNN "was like the meeting of two beings from different universes. Every answer Bradley gave concerned the substance of national problems. . . . Every question she asked was about short-term political tactics." Fallows said the interview closed with Bradley pleading for an end to coverage that reduced every subject to its partisan political dimension.

"As soon as he finished," Fallows writes, "Judy Woodruff asked her next question: `Do you want to be president?' It was as if she had not heard a word he had been saying."

In his own book, Bradley writes that if media coverage of politicians in 1978 had been as invasive as it has become since, he would never have made that first successful run for the Senate.

At that point Bradley's trajectory had already taken him a long way from his boyhood in Crystal City, Mo. …