As an occasional participant in big-think conferences bemoaning the downward drift of contemporary journalism from its former Olympian heights, I can furrow my brow, sadly shake my head and invoke the sainted memory of Walter Lippmann and Edward R. Murrow with the best of them. But as adept as I am at the public rituals of high-minded hand-wringing, I do wonder if all these lamentations are really necessary. For all my distaste for the preening egos on food-fight TV talk shows, for all my discomfort with the frenzied excesses of gotcha journalism, I do cling to the Panglossian belief that workaday reporters for our major newspapers are doing a good job in the face of sweetheart-get-me-the-Maalox deadline pressures.
So what are Charlie Peters and many of my fellow spear carriers in the Monthly alumni army so apoplectic about? Let’s start with Charlie’s pet peeve which he has often repeated, most recently on “Meet the Press.” As Charlie instructed Tim Russert, “President Clinton made a speech in August from the Vineyard announcing an executive order giving protection against HMO abuse to 125 million Americans. The New York Times gave that three paragraphs on Page 30.” Yes, Clinton unveiled this executive order in his August 29 radio address, and the Times the next day erred by downplaying it with a brief AP story. But this is far from an outrage like the Miami Herald skulking in the bushes to spy on Gary Hart and Donna Rice.
Now we’ll put this miscue by an unknown weekend Times editor in context. Remember, these were not exactly ordinary times. The vacationing Clinton had been a virtual recluse on Martha’s Vineyard for the prior 10 days, nursing his wounds from Monica Madness rather than mulling high policy. The HMO executive order may indeed prove to be the second coming of the New Deal, but Clinton himself devoted most of his five-minute radio address to rehashing old arguments about his already abundantly covered legislative plan for an HMO Bill of Rights. Moreover, Clinton normally uses these Saturday radio speeches to announce Dick Morris-style small-deeds fluff. Major policy initiatives, in contrast, are presented with the trumpet flare of detailed fact sheets and on-the-record briefings by Cabinet officials and senior White House aides. But Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, who is responsible for implementing this HMO executive order, wasn’t invited to Martha’s Vineyard. Nor were top advisors like Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed on hand to answer questions. Small wonder the Times and the rest of the press missed the story of a lifetime.
Since the early days of the Nixon administration (it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that we all go back that far), the Monthly has been rightly stressing another kind of truth about the White House press corps. No matter how talented and hard-working, White House reporters are prisoners with golden handcuffs, trapped by the exalted prestige of their beat. They are forced to take their cues from press handlers and spin masters as they react to the torrent of often manufactured news emanating from the Oval Office. And, yes, they often become afflicted with a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. It’s certainly not that these reporters love their captors, but they do adopt the dominant value system of their jail. If the White House looks at every issue through the narrow lens of polls and political positioning, reporters in their stories will reflect the cynical world view of a Chicago wardheeler. Answer me this: Name a White House beat writer who is as obsessed with political tactics as Bill Clinton. Clinton, after all, is a president who approved every soft-money ad script for his 1996 campaign and encouraged Dick Morris to conduct a poll to help him decide whether he should stonewall or confess his sexual misdeeds.
But unlike the fabled good old days (The Carter years when the press became inflamed over killer rabbits? The Reagan era built around Mike Deaver’s visuals?), the press now stands accused of twisting facts to fit pre-determined mindsets and yielding to the siren song of cleverness. Oh, the horror of it all. Are journalists really out to savage Clinton because they are ideologically outraged by his bland-is-better moderate agenda? Do they hate him for supporting abortion rights or courting the gay vote? Yes, there is palpable animus directed at the president. You know why? Because reporters – and this is a saving grace of the profession – hate being lied to. (Sorry, the proper White House word is “misled.”) Forget Monica, if you can. Clinton is a man who claimed in the 1992 campaign not to recall receiving an Army induction notice. I can recall dozens of whoppers Clinton unashamedly told to cover up his 1996 campaign scandals. The president has spent years in public perfecting the semantic dance steps that he so memorably employed in his grand jury testimony.
I got so caught up in Clinton’s veracity problems, I almost forgot that it is the press who are in the dock accused of the high crime of excessive cleverness. Now I’m not going to defend every cynical put-down that has made its way into print, especially the ones that aren’t very funny. Nor am I going to deny that too many hours wearing TV makeup can give print reporters an exalted sense of their own wit and wisdom. But some of the wise-ass commentary that the Monthly decries is merely the adolescent way reporters rebel against a political culture in which they are manipulated and spun to death. Also, at a time when serious newspapers are fighting for circulation, some reader-friendly irreverence can be justified as a small compromise on behalf of a greater good.
The subtext for this symposium, I suspect, is frustration over a year of non-stop scandal-mongering in Washington. I will resist the too-clever temptation to claim that the press is being blamed for Clinton’s sins. But I do think that the President is the indirect cause of the jarring one-note repetitiveness of recent Washington news. Long before the scandal hit, the Clinton administration was running out of energy and ideas. Granted, there are major stories not being adequately covered in the press, but the locus of most of this real news is outside the capital. Confronted with a Washington news vacuum, the press did what it always does – over-reacted to a story reeking of sex, cover-up and ersatz drama.
So as the Monthly gets ready to aim its mighty arsenal at a younger journalistic generation that does, at times, take self-expression a bit too far, I feel compelled to shout a slogan that was current around the time this magazine was born: “Don’t shoot, they’re your children!”