Unlike other trades, crafts, or professions, the American press is constantly in your face in one form or another: in your eyes, your ears—and an increasing number of critics these days would add: “yes, goddamit, and also in your nose—they stink!”
In the dog days of August, the so-called “media,” as well as the public, received a jarring sample of what is in store for both of them if the present course of angry collisions continue into the next millennium. For if the media continue to play roulette with First Amendment rights and obligations by exploiting unbridled sensationalism and arrogance, we are bound to end up a markedly different nation.
The coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the name of “watchdog” journalism has forced to the surface of American consciousness a cumulative buildup of outrage against press arrogance that for years has been gathering explosive steam.
Not since the end of the Vietnam War has the American press incurred such wrath from the consumers of print and broadcast news. Charges of bias were hurled from all directions as the press allowed itself to be manipulated, first by one side, then another, under cover of totally unidentifiable sources.
To surrender journalistic authority so readily indicates that little or no press experience has been handed down from the Indochina wars.
The print press, instead of filling the great void in the American press lineup with comprehensive reporting and in-depth analyses about the legitimate story of President Clinton’s possible misuse of power, displayed no forward thinking about covering the sex scandal as it hit the fan day after day.
For the print press to try to compete with television in sensationalism is a race in futility. While the Clinton- Lewinsky proceedings were underway there were dozens of unfulfilled opportunities to explain the law and the maneuvering around it by both sides. This is where there should have been serious watchdog journalism, as contrasted to stenographic journalism—writing down what you are told.
Even before the nationally televised O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles, but especially after the death of Britain’s Princess Diana as she was pursued by paparazzi, public sensitivity to actual, or perceived, press arrogance has made the “media” a despised institution for many Americans.
Yet not one American in 10,000—if that—could accurately define the extraordinarily diverse components of the “media.” But that ignorance is the media’s fault, not the public’s, because responsible journalists, including media owners, have not found a way to differentiate themselves in word and deed from the irresponsible. In fact, it is becoming more difficult to draw a distinction when so many leading publications are adopting the same habits and tactics of the tabloid trash.
Evidently driven by the conviction that there are no longer any limits on the language that should appear in newspapers or on television screens seen at the breakfast table, or in the nation’s classrooms, the mainstream print and broadcast media followed the tabloids through the no-holds-barred doors that lead to illusory circulation nirvana:
Oral sex in all its permutations. Penises flaccid and erect. DNA tests on Monica’s prized possession—the alleged semen-stained dress. Detailed exploration by lawyers on whether the President’s denial of “sex” with Monica could allow him to wriggle free from a perjury charge on grounds that not everyone counts that as sex; could it be categorized, instead, as foreplay?
Today’s “media” mantle is already so stretched that it encompasses everything from The New York Times to the screaming McLaughlin Group to Playboy Magazine’s nudes to the Matt Drudge Report on the Internet to television’s Hard Copy. Yet the public at large operates under the illusion that “media” is an entity that somehow can be held collectively responsible for the misdeeds of any single transgressor.
Never before have Americans been exposed day after day, throughout the spring and summer, to what was happening inside and outside a United States court house in the center of the nation’s capital, in a partly staged, partly impromptu production starring the nation’s 42d president and a para-nymph less than half his age. No torrid soap opera could match those daily scenes, because none could duplicate the national characters in the real-life plot.
The leader of the free world, no less, was being stripped bare of his public persona, to be revealed gambling recklessly on continuing in that exalted position and on history’s balance sheet, as well as on the honor and dignity of his wife, daughter, other family and friends, and everything else in his personal and public life.
Not surprisingly, every segment of that picture—not just the substantive elements—was magnetically irresistible to virtually all the “media” on the planet. The odds against ever repeating it anywhere on the globe are astronomical. So hundreds of press people from around the world poured into Washington to join American photographers and reporters shoving each other like pigs at a trough, to get at witnesses entering and leaving the U.S. courthouse—where the President’s fate hung in the balance.
To average Americans this was raucous “feeding time” in the media industry—and TV anchormen told them so, with sniffs of disapproval, even though they were speaking of their own networks’ camera crews in many instances.
No crystal ball is needed to discern that in the 2lst Century, what is loosely categorized as “the media,” will increasingly, and literally, look and smell like a diarrhea of uncontrollable diversity in the communications business—all in the name of “watchdog” journalism.
To those of us who have spent our lives committed—however naively—to serious watchdog journalism, what was happening in that bizarre scene in Washington’s Judiciary Square was a mockery of what cannot even be expressed in English, but can be in French, our raison d’etre—our reason for being.
For we media naïfs—although it is too embarrassing to say so out loud in mixed media company—the words of the First Amendment have a broader objective than enabling the media to behave boorishly outside that courthouse in order to jolt the world with pictures of that woman. Some of us trying to catch public attention from the rear of the over-sexed, over-loud, and short-on-manners media supermarket, are motivated, instead, by the First Amendment’s underlying purpose: To reinforce democracy in its loftiest aspirations, by giving the public the information it must have to prevent the abuse of power. That is what “watchdog” really means.
To employ inside-the-beltway language, do we in the chattering class of the media, therefore, want someone to shut up, and close down, any other part of the media because we dislike their behavior or product?
Absolutely not. As much as we may disapprove of their actions, or their ideas, their right to express them is untouchable. That is the genius of the First Amendment.
There is one elementary—but critical—requirement for journalism today that too many reporters and editors apparently never learned: how to be persistent and courteous at the same time.
Civility and courtesy evidently are seen by many reporters—especially younger ones—as leftover frills from their parents’ generation, to be used only on rare occasions, if necessary, as puffery, or foppishness.
No such advice could be more wrong, for several very tangible reasons:
It sounds so elementary, so obvious to say so, but courtesy is the all-purpose lubricant for communications around the globe. It can be especially valuable for the press, because journalism comes with a built-in proclivity for arrogance.
Because the essence of news is what is novel, unusual, out of the ordinary, the average person’s meeting with a reporter is more likely to deal with bad news rather than good news. The messenger who bears bad news and an arrogant manner, therefore, has two strikes against him before he even asks a question.
Journalism in the United States began, before that term existed, with what is visible in retrospect as two styles of reporting: Ben Franklin’s wise old owl approach, which took him from a true ink-stained wretch of a printer to one of the drafters of the Constitution, a literary icon at the most popular level, the nation’s first ambassador to France, inveterate ladies’ man into his ’70’s, and truly a man for all seasons.
Tom Paine, by contrast, disdained anything resembling ruffles and satins and silver-buckled shoes. While Franklin’s approach to independence for the Colonies was calm persuasiveness, Paine’s approach was open defiance and outrage at British rule.
The titles of Paine’s hand-pressed pamphlets generated their own heat and light: “Common Sense,” “The Crisis,” “The Rights of Man,” “Agrarian Justice” and other sizzlers.
Was Paine the progenitor of our era’s “shock jocks”? That would be an insult to the 18th Century “shocker.” His product was liberty; theirs the exploitation of liberty.
Try to image how these two 18th Century ink-stained-wretches—who could justifiably be described as the country’s pioneers in “watchdog” reporting on abuse of power—would have reacted to President Clinton’s bizarre four-minute report to the nation on August 17 on what he was doing during the previous seven months that almost obliterated from public attention everything else that was happening in the world.
Was there a whiff of politics in the Clinton plea for survival, which was far more of an arrogant counterattack on his accusers than an act of contrition, which the nation, and even many of his own associates, anticipated?
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, always quick at exploitive politics, got one of the first whiffs. Gingrich on August 20 was joyfully outlining Republican strategy for the impending election campaign, just three days after President Clinton committed the equivalent of political hara-kiri in admitting that he lied to the nation in denying he had an affair with Lewinsky. Gingrich did not even mention President Clinton as he addressed fellow Georgians in Marietta; he treated the President as though he was non-existent. Gingrich’s main target of opportunity on August 20 was the American press.
The shrewd speaker was not overtly nasty; he referred to the press as if it is a slow-witted, errant child who should be led out of the mud-slinging and gossip in which it has been wallowing.
“I challenge the media to face real problems,” instead of its obsession with “curiosity and gossip” Gingrich repeatedly said. He ticked off urgent world problems that have disappeared from priority public attention for months.
To ask “the media” to control itself might appear to be the logical alternative; in fact, that also appears to be utterly impossible in the age of the Internet and satellite communications.
Maybe the threat could be to withhold the media’s tools, striking at its ability to communicate—to be stripped of pens, pencils, laptop computers, satellite dishes, digital cameras, audio equipment, billboards, skywriting aircraft and pilots, desktop publishing, underwater cameras, balloons, carrier pigeons. As is obvious, any attempt to “control” the media stage in the information revolution is akin to trying to control space.
Then there is no solution? Our Founding Fathers were convinced they had one: the First Amendment.
To the British government, Paine was “a traitor” of a revolutionary with a price on his head. Was he also rude? Probably. But arrogance can be, and should be, accompanied by civility.
In my time as a reporter, the accolade for supreme arrogance in the American press corps surely would have gone to columnist Joseph Alsop.
Joe could be as insufferable a person as you ever met, but he also could be one of the most elegant denizens of Washington, regularly entertaining President-elect John Kennedy and other notables at his fashionable Georgetown home.
In an historical examination of Congress and the Washington Correspondents, entitled “Press Gallery,” by Donald Ritchie, Associate Historian of the Senate, Ritchie recalls that one day in the 1930’s he was in the Senate Press Gallery when Alsop “burst through the swinging doors into the gallery overlooking the chamber and peered down upon a solitary senator reading a speech.”
“Who is that?” Alsop said in a voice loud enough to turn heads. When told the senator’s name he replied in astonishment, “I’ve never heard of him!”
Joe Alsop became one of the most powerful voices in Washington, pushing Presidents Kennedy and Johnson into the morass of Vietnam at a time when journalists never disclosed their own roles behind the scenes in shaping policy.
One of the most consequential factors in government-press relations in the last half century was the fact that many of the most influential reporters and columnists at the outset of the Cold War had been in military uniform with simulated rank during World War II.
A large number of these journalists carried into the Cold War their same supportive role toward U.S. officials and their policies. Some others of us, who had been in uniform in other categories—in my case, as a Marine Corps combat correspondent—reverted at war’s end to what we regarded as the requisite role of questioning those who held power, as a counterweight against the abuse of power.
This split in journalistic approach became glaringly evident during the war in Vietnam, and in some respects it is still visible in American journalism—and is almost never discussed in public.
Now, for the first time in over half a century, the time is ripe for doing so. Never in such a time frame have we seen so many roaring disputes coincide about the American press. Toweringly topped by President Clinton’s downfall, these controversies extend from the Clinton-Lewinsky affair to multiple disclosures of fabricating the news to the humbling retraction by CNN and Time magazine of their story on use of sarin nerve gas in Vietnam.
The larger novelty, however, is not that the press is under sharp criticism; that is hardly rare. What is different is that not only are the criticisms deeper and broader than usual, but also that the press is criticizing itself to a greater extent than ever before. Now that’s news!
If our press product was wine, we would not have to wait until the end of 1998 to concede that it was “not a great year.” Let’s admit it, fellow media monsters, it is, to borrow Tom Paine’s memorable phrase, a time “to try men’s souls.”
And if Steve Brill’s Content, or any other publication or person on the globe offers up any criticism of what we do, let’s try to remember that the First Amendment, on which we survive, gives not only us—but everyone else—the right to take a poke at our nose as we take a poke at theirs.
Murrey Marder, Nieman Fellow 1950, is the retired Chief Diplomatic Correspondent of The Washington Post. He launched The Post’s foreign service in 1957.