As a professional journalist, I find that when I attend social functions, I am often peppered with questions from members of the public who are eager to learn more about how the "news game" works, questions such as:

"You work for a newspaper?"

"Hey! This guy works for a newspaper!"

"GET HIM!!"

"(Punch punch punch kick spit.)"

Thanks to my journalism training, I have been able to detect, underlying this curiosity, a certain amount of public skepticism and, yes, even hostility toward the press. Much of it appears to stem from the Gary Hart and Donna Rice story, which has received such intense and widespread coverage that some of you seem to think that we in the press are exploiting Gary Hart and Donna Rice by thinking up excuses to link the names Gary Hart and Donna Rice in boldface type like this, "Gary Hart and Donna Rice," every chance we get, because the only way we know of to sell newspapers is to use the names Gary Hart and Donna Rice. This is nonsense. We also have Jim Bakker and Jessica Hahn.

Anyway, today I thought I'd explain how journalism works in hopes that you, the reading public, will gain a better understanding of why you skip straight to the comics.

The newsgathering process begins, of course, with the outbreak of the news event itself. Generally there will not be any journalists present unless the event occurs inside a newspaper building, which is where we modern journalists must spend all of our time so that we can remain linked, via our computer terminals, to a sophisticated worldwide electronic information network, which we use to transmit late-breaking developments to each other. For example, if a journalist finds out, from one of his "sources," about an important new joke, such as the one about the man who walked into the bar with a parrot on his head, he (the journalist) can use microchip technology to transmit this joke, instantaneously, to literally THOUSANDS of other journalists, who can respond at nearly the speed of light with the one about the man who tells his wife that he was at a bar with solid-gold urinals.

How, then, do we obtain our actual news? We get the vast bulk of it from the "wire services," such as the Associated Press and United Press International. You would assume, judging from their names, that these are vast, omniscient, information-gathering machines, but in fact they consist mostly of caffeine-crazed individuals sitting at computer terminals and hastily rewriting stories out of their local newspapers.

So to summarize the basic journalism system: The newspapers get almost all of their information from the wire services, and the wire services get almost all of their information from the newspapers. The result is that certain news stories go around and around, gaining momentum each time. A good example is the Middle East. Many years ago, archeologists now believe, some kind of news event occurred there -- it was "Jordan rejects talks with Syria, Lebanon" or "Lebanon rejects Jordan, talks with Syria," or "Lebanon, Syria, Jordan talk about rejection," something like that-and the story got caught up in the wire service/newspaper circuit and now has attained a state of Eternal Media Life, appearing in every edition of every daily newspaper in America, usually next to the story about "Dollar falls vs. yen."

Another important source of news is Thin Air. This is where we professional journalists obtain our information about Trends, which are enormously important societal changes that are so broad and sweeping that no actual member of society such as yourself is even aware of them. An excellent example was the cover story in Newsweek a few months back headlined: "The '80s Are Over." This was a wonderful piece of journalism, taking dozens of smaller trends such as yuppies, nouvelle cuisine, "couch potatoes," Madonna, "cocooning," etc. -- all of which exist primarily in the minds of journalists -- and forming them into a gigantic Death Star of a trend -- "The '80s Are Over!" -- spinning somewhere out in Deep Journalism Hyperspace, invisible to millions of normal Earth people, who continue to do the same stuff they've been doing since before Newsweek officially declared that the '80s had begun (probably around 1973).

Well, I hope that this brief discussion has given you a deeper appreciation of modern journalism, and the kind of intensive effort that goes on "behind the scenes" from the moment that a terse news bulletin flashes over the wire ("Syria rejects Gary Hart and Donna Rice") to the moment, just hours later, when your delivery person hurls your newspaper into your neighbor's child's scum-filled wading pool. And next time you are feeling critical of the news media, remember what the situation is like in the Soviet Union, where there is no free press. Everybody over there has to get a real job.