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A Two-Tier Media Event: 'National Nature,' Local Nurture

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Washington--In the six years since former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell inaugurated it, the Education Department's "wall chart" has gained broad acceptance as a source of state-by-state information on the nation's educational achievement.

It has also become the department's most important media event.

Last week's wall-chart news conference--the first presided over by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos--drew at least 150 journalists. Melinda Kitchell, a department spokesman, said only 132 media representatives signed a list at the door, but the crowd clearly exceeded that mark and 250 press kits were distributed by the event's end.

The main reason for the wall chart's popularity is that it allows representatives of local newspapers and broadcast stations to report information specific to their states.

In fact, Ms. Kitchell said, the only two events that rival it in media appeal also have built-in local angles--ceremonies for winners in the department's school-recognition and Presidential scholars programs.

For reporters representing local media, their states' comparative performance is as important--or more important--than Mr. Cavazos' assessment of the data on national achievement. For them, the morning's main task was to record or film a department official making pointedly state-specific comments.

Paula J. Faria, for instance, a reporter for In Washington, an independent news service that provides coverage for local television stations, needed quotes dealing with Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, Nevada, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and had several different logos ready to snap onto her microphone.

Department officials prepare to slake that thirst for the local angle in their staging of the event. First up last week was the Secretary's speech. Then Mr. Cavazos and Charles E.M. Kolb, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, took reporters' questions.

But before Mr. Cavazos appeared, his spokesman, Mahlon Anderson, admonished the journalists to ask only "questions of a national scope," as "the Secretary's time is limited." He assured them that they would be able to obtain the all-important locally focused quotes and sound bites after the main presentation.

When it was over, department staff cleared the room of chairs and set up four auxiliary podiums, from which questions like "What is the significance of Alabama's performance this year?" were fielded.

Mr. Kolb took some questions. But most of the ed officials drafted for this duty are not high-ranking, and are not likely to speak for the department on the nightly news again soon. They were assisted by a packet of sheets for each state that included its statistical data and a one-paragraph summary of the state's comparative status.

For example, while Mr. Kolb told a reporter from wisn, a Milwaukee radio station, that her state's performance was "higher than average," George Pieler, a special assistant to Mr. Kolb, lauded reforms undertaken in Florida for the representative of an independent news service similar to Ms. Faria's.

As Mr. Pieler shifted his attention to Missouri at the reporter's request, Jerry Bolshee, an aide in the office of elementary and secondary education who worked on the wall chart, discussed Oklahoma's test scores with another news-service representative.--jm

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