I received a call from HannahGershon, teacher of romance languages at the Eleanor Roosevelt Science and Technology Center, a high school in Greenbelt with 2,400 students. She was selected in March by the U.S. Department of Education to receive a Christa McAuliffe Fellowship. It includes a grant of $31,200 to prepare a new curriculum for the teaching of foreign languages and to train other teachers in the art.
The fellowship is not equivalent to the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, it's not chopped liver. One teacher in each state is chosen for these annual awards, named for the teacher-astronaut killed in the Challenger explosion. But The Post -- meaning some individual in the newsroom -- was unimpressed.
Weeks passed. Nothing was published about the award. Considerable space was devoted in that period, however, to the blowing of other horns, namely our own: "Reporter Honored for Articles," "Post Reporters Cited for Series," "Post Metro Writers Win Fellowships," etc. Many columns were devoted to teacher awards -- not the McAuliffe awards, to be sure, but rather to those given by The Post in the name of Eugene Meyer.
There is nothing mysterious or exceptional in the unequal treatment Hannah Gershon received. Life is unfair, and newspapers have engaged in self-promotion since they were invented. If one of their own plucks a prize from among the myriad available each year, it is as certain as sunrise that the glad tidings will be shared with the human race.
Something else often is at work in matters of this kind -- favoritism. Yuppies call it "networking." It permeates much of what we do. If, for example, it had been Hannah Gershon's good fortune to have a friend or a relative in the newsroom it is likely that an item about her award would have found its way into print. If she had at beck and call an interlocutor with "connections" down here, the same result might have been achieved.
Much of the content of newspapers and other "media" is shaped and colored in these ways and by personal relationships of a different sort. "Friendships," for example, based on mutual convenience and advantage, are struck up constantly between reporters and their sources. A case in point is the sunny and civilized relationship between Secretary of State James Baker and the Washington press establishment. It survived the nasty conflicts between press and president during the Reagan years and endures today because of the reciprocal trade agreements so often encountered here: "access" is given, sympathetic understanding is received.
The reverse relationship -- mutual antagonism -- may also shape the news; viz., White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. He gets "bad press," it is said, because he won't "play ball" with reporters; he is unloved in return. Countless "positive" and "negative" relationships exist in this city; they are not insignificant factors in what is and isn't printed.
Returning to Hannah Gershon: I do not mean to suggest that the only way to overcome an editor's whim is through an inside connection or from celebrity or high position. There are other means of access. She could have purchased a full-page ad for $18,744, although that would have put a mighty dent in the fellowship grant. With the advice of a good publicist, she might have hoaxed her way into print. At the Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1988, humor columnist Dave Barry and several friends put cardboard boxes on their heads and paraded outside the convention hall. Within seven seconds, television cameras were on the scene. A carefully planned "confrontation" often does the trick, a la Greenpeace: park a rowboat in front of a battleship.
A University of Georgia journalism professor, Scott Cutlip, estimates that 40 percent of what passes for news in the United States originates with press agents and "public relations" people, of whom there are now approximately 150,000 American practitioners. Hannah Gershon has no PR representative, and it is perhaps just as well, since the daily volume of propaganda and information pouring into the newsroom is beyond anyone's capacity to absorb: 6,700 Fax pages, 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of mail, uncounted thousands of phone contacts, hand-delivered messages and personal visitations.
It's a real tower of Babel that the ombudsman, on rare occasions, succeeds in out-babbling. Hannah Gershon, I trust, will have a nice day.