Some readers detected a goodly amount of smirking in yesterday's Post story on The New York Times decision to discontinue the local affairs column by Sydney H. Schanberg. The Post story by Eleanor Randolph, media reporter, noted that "no reason was given" for ending the column and said another assignment for Schanberg, the Pulitzer prize winner, was "under discussion." The Post's inquiries on Monday may have resulted in the brief item in The Times yesterday noting that Schanberg "has been asked to accept another assignment, which is now under discussion" and added that "the paper hoped, in time, to renew a metropolitan affairs column." Now let us take a look at The Post's own handling of a similar decision.
Last May a Post column, "Consumer Update," by Molly Sinclair, consumer reporter on the Metro staff, vanished after a 21/2 year run. There was no explanation, no discussion of future plans for the column. After appearing on Saturdays for 30 months, it disappeared without a trace. Sinclair was reassigned on the Metro staff.
Yesterday, Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. acknowledged there was no announcement of the decision to discontinue the column. As for revival some time in the future, he said, "I don't know at this time." In contrast, he defended the attention given to The Times decision as involving "a prominent column on the op-ed page done by a celebrity."
Schanberg's downfall, according to The Post report, came because he criticized The Times and other papers for failing to investigate "the chicanery" involved in the proposed Westway highway project in Manhattan.
The Post has certainly been faster in ferreting out chicanery than in providing consumer information.
The Times has also published a consumer column on Saturdays, and it is still appearing.
But better than either effort is a new NBC television network program "Fight Back with David Horowitz" appearing Saturdays at 7 p.m. Horowitz, a west coast consumer reporter for several years, doesn't hesitate to tangle with exaggerations or other shortcomings in the marketplace.
Last Saturday he took on one of the nation's major trash bag manufacturers. By filming actual tests of the bags, he demonstrated that the company was overstating its product claims. He pointed up a hazardous situation in a children's bunk bed marketed by one of the nation's largest retailers and described how consumers could remedy the problem.
His program also filmed unusual whole chicken packets that contained three wings and two necks -- more appropriate for Robert Ripley than a hungry family. A "French" shirt made in Hong Kong was next and a hokey spark plug enhancer was uncovered by his automotive expert.
The program offered more consumer information in 30 minutes than the newspapers I read provide in several weeks. I am confident that once identified on the program the manufacturers are likely to mend their ways -- and quickly. Horowitz's closing advice to consumers is "fight back and don't let anyone rip you off."
Such programming is particularly welcome in a period when some government agencies have slid into a period of unofficial deregulation -- a slowdown in enforcing legislation even though Congress has not changed its mandate. Papers cover some of these episodes, but a comprehensive look at what's happening -- or not happening -- by way of protecting consumers has yet to be put together.
The media have demonstrated courage and selflessness in dealing the shortcomings of advertisers, and consumers have come to expect such service. If a consumer is to be kept alert, he or she needs to be informed. This goal is not advanced by sinking a long- running column of consumer news, as The Post has done. Readers deserve better than quiet disappearance.