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Bad News for the Media Elite

The national press, among the most knowledgeable and powerful (and self-important) people in the country, ended up out of the loop about the Monica mess. And, writes Michael Wolff, reclaiming their former statuswon't be easy.

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This is what the press does best: make instant adjustments to the balance sheet, immediate photo-finish assessments, snap judgments about the direction of history, the value of careers, the weight of morality, the meaning of meaning. The other thing the press does best is pick itself up, dust itself off, and begin all over again when it gets the story flat-out wrong. And never before, not DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN, not Liston-Clay, not the Dodgers' 1963 World Series sweep, has the press been so wrong.

If there were justice, Cokie Roberts would resign, too. It was her morality -- and personality -- that people voted against.

It is not, at least this season, the media as a whole that we despise -- we seem to understand that even Jerry Springer is just entertainment. It's the news we don't like. It's the serious guys -- the national anchors, the Sunday-morning talking heads, the big-time columnists and pundits, the White House correspondents -- who are trying to assemble facts, deal with issues, present, analyze, and digest what's happening today, whom we don't trust and more and more can't abide. Ted Koppel, chin tucked in, face darkening, voice slowing, disapproval rising, wondering each night how a man who is the leader of the American people can so disgrace the White House . . .

The reversal here, newsmen morphing from our most respected symbols to among our least, judged by some to be lower than lawyers even, has come home to roost in the startling discrepancy between what Americans think of Clinton and what the media thinks Americans should think about Clinton. But it isn't only a story about a bad news call; it's about the public's media innocence evolving into finely nuanced media sophistication (in what other realm have we gained such experience? Only sex), and, conversely, of media professionals grown obvious, heavy-handed, square -- hot under the collar in a cool medium. Power not only corrupts but plateaus, then degrades. The press, which arguably has been the real party in power for the past generation, faces all the forces that undermine the powerful: complacency, inertia, age, arrogance.

How did it happen that the press not only misread the mood of the electorate but got on the wrong side of it?

I grew up in a newspaper family (my mother became a reporter at 17; my father graduated from newspapers into the advertising business) at the end of the age when every town had at least a morning and an evening paper, when news-gathering was, openly and even proudly, a more or less slapdash, slapstick, drunken Front Page affair. Everybody made up stories. Nobody investigated anybody. A hack was a hack. Journalism was not an exalted career. But at 6 p.m., who wasn't unfolding the paper? The local paper wasn't, after all, just news; it was the bulk of one's media life. It was a great package of conventional attitudes and wisdom. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But in the new age of status and professionalism (the world journalist being largely a postmodern usage), the news-gathering function broke free from the rest of the paper, and from the rest of the media. First there was Teddy White's Making of the President -- you could cover politics for its own self; the game of politics had news value. Then Vietnam, when newsmen became a moral force in American life. Then Watergate, where the news media took on a police function. What's more, the algebraic explosion of airtime needed to be fed -- and, relatively speaking, political talking heads were something cheap to fill it with.

What was created was not only a new profession -- the political commentator -- but a new class. A political-mandarin class.

A big career in journalism is a career that brings you to Washington. Getting to Washington is everything you've ever worked for (the disappointments you endure when you get there, the cramped quarters, the cutthroat competition, the parochial politicians, are another story). There's no better platform, says the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz about the White House beat in his book Spin Cycle, "no faster ticket to the top of the nightly news." That's how Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Lesley Stahl, Sam Donaldson, Chris Wallace, Judy Woodruff, and Brian Williams got launched.

The reverse has happened, too: Political professionals now aspire to careers in journalism (or, perhaps more accurately, they see little difference between a politician's career and a pundit's). Tim Russert, Diane Sawyer, Dee Dee Myers, George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, Pat Buchanan, and David Gergen were all political professionals (Newt may now, naturally, become a journalist).

Ironically, it's television that's provided the most powerful reinforcement of the primacy of Washington. Television, at the same time it was making the news a lowest-common-denominator experience, emphasizing entertainment rather than issues, soft stories instead of hard, still valued its Washington reporters way above all others. The multi-million-dollar guys covered Washington. Washington was journalism. Politics was news. Anything else was, well, television.

Now, one of the frequent criticisms about the press is that it is cynical about politics -- more interested in who has power than in the value of the issues at hand. But I think that this is not true; I think that this is the press trying, vainly, to analyze itself (an I'm-too-smart-for-my-own-good analysis). I don't think we find the press cynical at all (as in wondering what they're doing here; as in questioning the value of what they're reporting on). What we have difficulty relating to is the fundamental belief on the part of the Washington press class in the power, importance, and meaning of politics -- a critical interpretation of the world that comes pretty directly out of a high-school civics book.

The problem here, the disconnect, is that it may be that the only groups of Americans left still talking passionately about politics are politicians and the press (and the emotionally troubled). The Democrats, Republicans, and press play out a drama of villains and cowards and saviors in the battle over health care, for instance, to absolutely no resolution, while at the same time the health-care system, through no fault of anyone in politics, is radically transformed in everyone's life. Hello?

Is it a surprise that in the post-Cold War, post-labor-union, post-big-social-spending era, Americans might lose that civic-minded sense of politics and government as the main organizing principle of public life? Is it such a shock that the decisions we make as consumers, the mergers or acquisitions of companies we work for, the technology we adopt in our daily lives, make a quicker and often more substantial impression on the fabric of society than the effects of federal, state, or local legislation?

Nowhere does that trend -- the vastly diminishing importance of the political process in American life -- even shade the reporting of the national press.

In the Monica story, the press charged ahead and applied its single-minded political analysis. But understanding the story, how it played not against a political reality but against personal experience, required a palette of feelings that no one in dead-below-the-head Washington had.

Indeed, only you-know-who was not dead below.


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