is a senior editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and author of Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt.
In a bid to curry favor with powerful insiders, Gregg Easterbrook today sent Charles Peters an article telling him what he wanted to hear about trends in contemporary journalism. Easterbrook spun the article as an honest effort, claiming in a brief telephone interview that his were “the best points I could think of.” But sources close to the article, including a Washington Monthly staff editor who spoke on the condition that her name would melodramatically not be used in order to make her quote seem more exciting, said that Easterbrook and Peters had actually discussed the content of the article before it was written, and that “Charlie told Gregg to come up with something interesting.” This was seen by well-informed but nameless observers as another instance of Washington journalism placing spin first and content second.
Sensing a hostile press corps at his appearance before the House Subcommittee on Bridge Abutments, Pancreas Research and Airport Reforestation, Easterbrook tried to depict himself as merely “an author” who was “trying to dream something up.” He said that “generations of Easterbrooks have worked the soil of this great land, trying to dream something up.” This appeal seemed carefully calculated to deflect questions about whether he and Peters had privately met before the story was published. Easterbrook refused to answer questions about his sexual life, asserting that “this has nothing to do with public policy matters.” Subcommittee staffers winked at each other at this statement. Reporters interpreted the winks as proof that there was something not being said.
Pressed to defend his so-called “article,” Easterbrook offered the subcommittee an example. His example came from the Dec. 2, 1998, New York Times front page. Headlined PENITENTS CALLED BY GOP SPEAK ON PERILS OF PERJURY, this article was an account of the previous day’s testimony before the Clinton impeachment panel and was presented as a straight article, not a news analysis. The article began,
“WASHINGTON. The way the Judiciary Committee billboarded the day’s hearing – ‘The Consequences of Perjury’ – had the ring of the pulpit to it, much as the sermon topic ‘The Wages of Sin’ has generated countless spiritual revivals across American history. Revival was most definitely the Republicans’ hope, with their attempt to impeach President Clinton still failing to win over the American public. But instead of fire and brimstone, the Republicans presented two penitent miscreants – two ordinary women who were convicted and seriously punished by the government for having lied under oath about their sex lives.”
Attempting to adopt a jaunty tone he no doubt learned by studying tapes of Tom Hanks being interviewed by Tina Brown about nuclear disarmament, Easterbrook noted to the committee that rather than emphasize the seriousness of a presidential impeachment inquiry, articles like this only contributed to the cynical sense that it’s all a big game no one really need care about. Further, he stated in an obvious effort to divert attention from the fact that his stylish new glasses were slipping down his nose, a nose that, as Pushkin once wrote, “slopes/toward a point it never makes,” a nose that has never been subjected to rhinoplasty, unlike the nose of Paula Jones, whose graphic sexual claims we wish we could dwell on here, the article’s emphasis on political spin makes little of the fact that two women were being “seriously punished” by the legal system merely for trying to keep private details of their sexual lives, which we wish we could dwell on here. Isn’t the fact that two women have been jailed for trying to maintain privacy in their sexual lives something that journalists should be upset about, not treat as sport? Madonna and Morgan Freeman, contacted in Los Angeles, said that the lack of sufficient graphic sexual details to allow establishment news organizations to act like tabloids showed that Washington is a town in crisis.
In the text of his article for The Washington Monthly, which was posted on the Internet before it was written, and then never actually published, Easterbrook would have said that examples of high-tech overly spun modern journalism were scarcely confined to The New York Times, but could be found almost anywhere.
People once turned to intellectual publications such as The New Republic or The Atlantic Monthly (Easterbrook shamelessly named his own employers, in order to hype them for runaway newsstand sales that lead to obscene profits that can then be used for soft-money donations to manipulate the public, which of course is the sole goal of all government officials) in order to find an urbane diversion from the excessive straightness of newspapers and television. But now, Easterbrook said, newspapers and television are so glib and condescending that people are turning to intellectual publications in hopes of finding straightness. Obviously, he was driven by self-interest to say this.
Easterbrook would have made one other point, but was cut off when Dan Rather entered the hearing room and began interviewing Cindy Crawford about Frank Rich’s column on Dennis Rodman’s new negligee. The point Easterbrook would have made is that once, reporters were far too reticent about stating the less attractive reasons that politicians and government officials did things – to appease interest groups, or win campaign donations, or promote their own names. Today, in contrast, many journalists seem interested only in the less attractive reasons that leaders do things. Coverage downplays, condescends to or skips over entirely the useful aspects of political decisions – that government programs really can help people. By drumming on the shady side of politics and skipping over the admirable side, journalistic glibness fails to reward the country’s leaders for that part of their actions which are admirable, thereby encouraging more cynicism to be reported on.
In a subsequent appearance before the House Subcommittee on Air Time and Quotable Non-Sequiturs, Easterbrook denied that he had received payments from Peters for his article, saying, “No one has ever received payments from Charlie Peters.” IRS records uncovered by committee investigators contradicted this claim, showing that The Washington Monthly did in fact pay a writer for an article on March 22, 1974. A disgruntled former Washington Monthly business manager, who was fired for making the payment, provided the records to the subcommittee. Investigators hope to link The Washington Monthly to a series of payments to printers, office-supply distributors and take-out delicatessens. Clearly coached by high-powered media spinmeisters, Easterbrook denied all knowledge of the payments.