JOURNALISTS HATE news the way generals hate war and free- market entrepreneurs hate competition -- it messes everything up.
That's why journalists loved the summit talks. Everybody thought nothing would happen, and it did. Nada. Nyet. Zippola. It was like a Monday morning in Washington in August. It was Kohoutek the comet, it was Jimmy Carter's reindustrialization policy; it was Hurricane Gloria; a political convention, and the Law of the Sea Treaty rolled into one.
Well, not quite. Gorbachev said he'd visit Reagan in Washington sometime, Reagan said he'd visit Gorbachev in Moscow.
It's the summit version of the same line that every Washington player uses to break off a conversation: "Let's get lunch sometime." And it was about as much excitement as a class reunion at a night school in accountancy.
The only thing it did was cap a great autumn for non-stories. Having experienced the highs of tax reform and the visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the American media were ready to move on to the harder stuff: the summit.
Pravda and Tass didn't understand this, of course. They sent only four correspondents to Geneva.
"It is not a show for us," said Pravda's foreign editor, Thomas Kolesnichenko. "You Americans do many things for show -- like your elections, with balloons, hats and Coca-Cola."
It had been tense -- there was a slight chance that we might get surprised. About like the chance that a political convention will break wide open and a long shot will get the nomination. But on Tuesday, the news blackout was announced and we didn't have to worry about the unforeseen.
Excitement was on the level of ABC's David Hartman interviewing two American students in Geneva who'd had lunch with Nancy Reagan. She talked about her dog, they said, and didn't finish her soup. But wait a second! What was that on the cast that one student had on her leg? Was it . . . ? Yes, the signature of Nancy Reagan! The camera zoomed in. And then David Hartman, knowing a shot at being part of history when he saw it, signed the cast too. Was it okay, he asked the girl? Sure, she said.
Terrific. At least we don't have to listen to endless mea culpas and soul searching about where the media went wrong on the story and why we didn't see it coming, and so on. The summit coverage was textbook stuff of the "journalism-as-first-draft-of-history" variety. It did what journalists are most comfortable doing, which is commemorating, taking a neatly organized package, putting a few bows on it and handing it to the public with best wishes.
Another plus: There were no heroes coming back to newsrooms to make people jealous, demand raises, get movies made about themselves, and otherwise foul things up. This is where journalism is like the military. Stateside commanders learned to dread the return of combat veterans during Vietnam. They wouldn't sew name tags on their socks, they wouldn't mow the colonel's lawn, they were troublemakers.
Where journalism is like big business is that it's become one in the last 20 years, and it attracts a whole new breed of reporter and editor. Once a refuge for amateur anarchists, professional voyeurs, rummies, blithe spirits, compulsive do-gooders, rich kids waiting for the trust fund to kick in and other sociopaths, journalism has become a career, of all things. It's full of people who value order and predictability, not adventure. Newsrooms actually have people in them who could get jobs someplace else, probably managing something, as befits their breeding and education.
And the media are rich. The television networks, particularly, have armies on their payroll: cameramen, sound technicians, satellite link-up specialists, computer graphics teams, you name it. Why? The conventional reason that media executives give for spending money is that they fear getting beaten to the story by the competition. The blessing of the summit was that there was no story, therefore they couldn't get beaten. What could be more comforting?
Furthermore, the next time some publisher or network president asks why they have to have all these people milling around one of the world's dullest cities, the executives can answer: How else do you cover a summit?