Bad News for the Media Elite

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’$2 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.

Where the political analysis looks for strength, the president benefited from his display of weakness. Where the political analysis recoils from emotion, the American people were suddenly riveted by details of desire, longing, jealousy, and good old-fashioned crushes. Where the political analysis exalts above all else the singular aura and distinction of being presidential, this president communicates by being just another baby-boomer, as capable and as dysfunctional as the next.

How big is the divide between what the press understands and what a sizable portion of Americans perceives? Well, the press believes that even if Clinton avoids impeachment, he is a ruined political figure who leaves an ignominious legacy. Meanwhile, that sizable portion of America seems to be moving to embrace Bill Clinton in an altogether new relationship of fascination, equanimity, and friendship – out of which might even come a legacy of greatness. The divide is that big.

Here’s what I think happened. The press made a deal with Clinton (or, in its own collective mind, it thought it was making a deal). Remember: They absolutely had him. There were tapes! In his own words! Whispering to Gennifer Flowers. At any point, they – the press – could have ended his first campaign for president. But they rationalized that he was basically a good kid, a serious, brainy student of social policy – just the sort of kid that this sort of parent likes. So they let him slide on the condition that he wouldn’t do it again. Of course he wouldn’t! Who would take that kind of risk? It seemed safe to assume he’d just be Bill the Wonk, not Bill the Hound.

At that moment, the law of unintended effects kicked in. The public, having held its breath, having waited for the press to bring him down, accepted the obvious: The man sleeps around. (The public was put in the position of being the guy’s guilty friend: Will he get caught? Will he get away with it?)

So Clinton, the smart kid, the valedictorian, the uncontrollable flirt, attracted to pretty much every woman he’s ever met, gets elected.

You’ve got to believe Clinton knows this about himself, and accepts it: He likes sex (or seduction), needs sex (perhaps even love), and wants more of it. Surprise: That’s an attractive quality. We’re drawn – women especially are drawn – to guys who want you to love them. It’s certainly more exciting than the other kind of guy. After Starr nailed Clinton on the dress, David Gergen predicted that the public upset would soon turn to rage. Well, not only was the public not enraged; it was compelled, fascinated – loving him even more. I mean, these approval ratings are not just high: These are FDR’s ratings!

Did Clinton ever reckon with the fact that someday he’d get caught flat out? I’ll bet he prepared himself. I’ll bet he played this out in his head. He thought about how to communicate the nuance and dimension and sizzle of a new kind of politician to the American people: i.e., This is all of me. In fact, he doesn’t look shamefaced or awkward at all when he’s caught. He looks – could it be? – dignified, ennobled. At any rate, he certainly looks like he’s fully prepared to cope with it. He has a lot going for him, of course. He knows his generation, after all – and who among them hasn’t had a sexual secret? Plus, he has this bedrock of women supporting him – they get the vibe (remember, he’s a mama’s boy, having to keep winning his mother back after each of her many marriages). And he has the right opponents – the religious right, the sex haters.

Now, of course, this drives the press nuts. It’s not America that’s enraged; it’s the press that’s crazy with rage. Not least of all because they let him off. What could they say now to the charge You knew he was a sleep-around? They said: Yes, but not in the White House! Harrumph! The betrayal went deeper still. Because Clinton turned out to be not, first and foremost, a wonk, a policy brother, a bureaucrat, but instead some other kind of character that confused the political-commentator class. The guy was communicating over their heads. Talking soft. Sending vibes. Emoting. Even having some secret communication with American women.

Indeed, Clinton understood exactly the question he needed the American people to ask. Not Who lied? Not What did he do? Not Who said what to whom? But: Who is the real hypocrite?

He got the best of all possible answers: the press.

And the media hypocrisy was of a very unattractive kind. It was country-club hypocrisy. Arch. Insider. Condescending. Oh, you see, I told you he wasn’t of our class, darling. He wasn’t discreet. And that girl, she has such a weight problem! Oh, yes, thank you, Sally, I will take a freshener.

Only Geraldo, the anti-anchor, seemed to sort of get it, muttering sotto voce: “I love the guy, but what a schmuck …”

The president sent a layered message the weekend after his unsatisfying August confession when, with the press demanding contrition of some operatic order and predicting imminent and inevitable resignation, he went out on a boat with Walter Cronkite. Not only did he choose to align himself with a figure of larger-than-life rectitude, but he chose one who provided a marked contrast to the present-day faces who deliver the news. (As a sea-change measure, Nixon, in somewhat similar circumstances, used Billy Graham as his moral foil.) Cronkite, the last and greatest figure of an all-powerful network-news media that offered not only information but temperament, credibility, heroism even, proffered a cheerful wave and a sage smile as his sloop moved out of the Vineyard harbor past the press jackals on the shore.

But it wasn’t just the stark contrast that Clinton wanted to point out. The other layer woven into Clinton’s Cronkite message is that as much as the present crop of newsmen couldn’t eat Cronkite’s crumbs, they were also, at least in form and affect, not that different from him. Everything had changed – except these newsmen.

We’ve all gained a lifetime of savviness about how the media works, about how we get information – the process of getting it, how much we get, what kind we get – and about who is giving it to us. And yet, in the face of this deluge, Sam Donaldson (“If the charges are true, he’s finished”) stands pat. By his tone, stance, manner, hair, he continues to maintain: I impart the message (indeed, I am the message).

At the same time, part of the frustration of the national news media – a frustration that in and of itself does nothing to endear it to its audience – is that the message it sends does not seem to register. This is a relatively novel situation. The press says the most straightforward and damaging things to a network-size audience, but there is no fluctuation in the nation’s opinion. The press doesn’t even seem to be able to create doubt. The audience is imperturbable.

The press has treated this as a moral issue – a.k.a. the death of outrage – instead of understanding it as an information issue: Obviously there are countervailing messages making a stronger impact. It is, however, not necessarily clear that the national news media knows that its audience has other sources. It certainly is hard to imagine these million-dollar correspondents and anchor guys – few of them getting any younger, you’ll notice – down in their finished basements channel-surfing, checking e-mail, personalizing bots, browsing porno sites, instant-messaging, downloading audio plug-ins.

It’s not improbable that Sam Donaldson has no idea what has happened: That choice has exploded – and with that the fundamental premise of network news, that it represents America in its entirety, has shattered. That the nature of information itself has changed – specialized information, the sophisticated or the professional or the foreign or the weird and kinky and conspiratorial, is pretty much as easy to come by as the homogenized stuff. And, perhaps most profound, the point of view has shifted. Most of the opinions we receive every day are not from the professional opinion class but from the cacophony of e-mailers, posters, radio call-inners, whomever.

And – something else of no little consequence – whom, at this point, does Sam Donaldson work for, anyway? Everybody knows these news organizations have been bought, their allegiances altered, their agendas changed. The Tiffany Network was acquired by a real-estate-and-tobacco company, then by a defense contractor, which was in turn acquired by a radio-station owner who got rich off Howard Stern (“I own CBS,” Stern says); CNN was acquired by Time Warner, NBC by GE, ABC by Disney, not to mention that everyone’s hometown newspaper has been bought and made part of a chain. And we’re supposed to pretend that everything is the same, that this turnover has no effect? What do these people takes us for?

This is, finally, how an elite loses its position. The members of the elite just start to seem like dinosaurs. Life happens in exciting, interesting, novel ways, but they aren’t part of it. They live some past life, or live in memories of some past life. The American people, riding economic and social forces, go one way – demonstrating an uncanny ability to get hip in an instant – while the upholders of conventional thinking are, necessarily, left behind.

Bad News for the Media Elite