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The artillery of the press is muted this campaign season

The faint rumbling in the background in these early days of October is no sign that Mother Nature is bilious. It is the press you hear, unlimbering and sighting its guns for the final barrages of the presidential campaign: The Endorsements.

In recent years, the earth has not trembled the way it once did during this period. American newspapers in the 20th century to a considerable extent have depoliticized themselves. As often as not they are spectators rather than participants in our political wars.

In 1988, more than half of them remained neutral throughout the George Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign. Even some of our most intensely political sheets _ the Washington Post, is a case in point _ never left the sidelines in that election. The New York Times fired a token salvo or two in support of Dukakis, but its heart wasn't in it. The Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun were among the hundreds taking oaths of silence or declaring a plague on both houses. We'll see more of that this year.

The Sun has not endorsed a presidential candidate since anointing Jimmy Carter in 1980 and may never do so again. The paper's editorial-page editor, Joseph L.

R. Sterne, explained for the Sun's readers recently that information overload at this period in our history has made endorsements redundant. "No one needs our guidance," he said. "People can . . . make up their own minds." The Sun's sister paper, the Los Angeles Times, takes essentially the same position. Their common corporate parent is the Times-Mirror Co.

Belligerency, of course, is not entirely a thing of the past. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Seattle Times and Detroit Free Press have come out for Bill Clinton. The Boston Globe, the Washington Post and the New York Times have made no formal commitments, but it is clear they will declare for Clinton soon. They have been blasting Bush daily for weeks on end.

Jack Rosenthal, editorial page editor at the New York Times, seems especially fired up for the fray. He has no patience with editors who preach neutrality at endorsement time: "Newspapers tell readers every day what they ought to think about every issue under the sun. If they are going to assume the responsibility _ and the arrogance and ambition _ to want to call all the balls and strikes inning by inning (during a president's term) .

.

. don't they have the responsibility to add it all up at election time and give the final score?"

The problem here is that in an age of corporate journalism and media conglomeration, institutions speak with many voices; their identities have gotten to be extremely blurred. The Sun, as a case in point, is no longer the autonomous Chesapeake Bay institution of days gone by. It lost that independent identity when it was bought up a few years ago by Times-Mirror, a California-based company. Its editorial board, consisting of a half-dozen or so members, may speak for itself but does not always or necessarily speak for those absentee managers and proprietors who write the checks and own the presses.

This is the condition of most of our newspapers. They are corporate outposts rather than independent entities with distinctive regional or national voices. They become homogenized "products."

In partisan terms, today's newspaper executives tend to be eunuchs, unlike the colorful and passionate newspaper entrepreneurs of the 19th century and the early decades of this one. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, one of the founders of the Republican Party, would boast in front-page advertisements that "there is not a slave-trader on this continent who does not know and hate the TRIBUNE; there is not a (whiskey distiller) who does not consider it a very dangerous and immoral paper. . . . (We are part of) that mighty REPUBLICAN movement which . . . is destined to . . . unite the true hearts and strong arms of the free-souled (anti-slavery forces of the United States)." A few years later he ran for president.

There are no Greeleys in newspaper boardrooms today or in our newsrooms, for that matter. The "professionalization" of journalism in this century has brought with it standards and ethical codes that disapprove strongly of partisanship or propaganda in the news columns.

For all these reasons, the artillery of the press is muted this autumn. Some of its guns have been permanently spiked. Others have been beaten into plowshares or put into the service of the spotted owl. The news business has not, as a consequence, lost its social utility. It's just more languid and a teensy bit dull.

Richard Harwood is a former ombudsman of the Washington Post.

Special to the Washington Post

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