Media Lemmings Run Amok!  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 1992

Media Lemmings Run Amok!   

Clinton is just the latest to be trampled in the rush to the Sea of Sleaze...but Bush got kinder, gentler treatment.

By Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at the University of California, is the author of "Inside Prime Time," "The Sixties:Years of Hope, Days of Rage" and the forthcoming novel, "The Murder of Albert Einstein."      


In the unfolding soap-operatic tragicomedy of campaign coverage, the current script brings us the episode called, "Where did the candidate sleep and when did his wife know it?" The moment five years ago when Paul Taylor of the Washington Post stood up at a press conference and asked Gary Hart, "Have you ever committed adultery?" proves to have been a slimeshed. The fact that the question was asked in public established the precedent. Precedent has now become tradition. The rule seems to be: If at first you don't scoop, report that somebody else has.

As somebody else surely will. The Hart rule continues to be stretched. One rationale for the 1987 Miami Herald stakeout was that Hart had played double-or-nothing with rumors by inviting the press to tail him. Arguably, then, the quality of his judgment, if not his fidelity, was a legitimate subject for inquiry. But five years later, that nicety has been jettisoned. The fact that Bill Clinton issued no dare at all, and was not accused of philandering on the campaign trail, was immaterial. The bedroom itself has been declared fair game. Now America's character test seems to be: Throw a lot of mud at the candidate and see how skillfully he ducks it.

In such a manner has it come to pass that the agenda for the quality press is being set by the quantity press--the supermarket checkout stand, the local TV news, the daily tabloids. In retrospect, we can see that a line was crossed last April when NBC News justified broadcasting the name of the alleged rape victim in Palm Beach by pointing to prior publication in the tabloid Globe--whereupon the New York Times used NBC as its precedent.

In the present instance, once ABC's "Nightline" succumbs, neither CBS nor NBC will be far behind. And so the same issue of the Star whose front page offered "FOUND! Ted Danson's forgotten first wife" and "I was Stevie Wonder's secret lover for 24 years" commanded America's respectable outlets with "My 12-year affair with Bill Clinton." That the Star (and later, "A Current Affair") paid for Gennifer Flowers' services went barely noted. And so "the media" might as well be a singular noun, for from bottom to top, the genitals are wagging the dog. Competition leads not to variety but to uniformity.

The upshot is that at the present rate only saints need apply for public office--wiping out a considerable proportion of our libido-driven candidate corps. The normal red-blooded politician who hasn't confined his kissing to babies for a sufficiently long time is damned whatever he (or someday, she) does. He's being asked, "Have you stopped cheating on your wife?" If he doesn't refuse to talk, the fact that he's talked--whatever he says--keeps the story alive and moving. (Robert Kaiser, managing editor of the Washington Post, was quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times piece by Tom Rosenstiel saying, "My sense is that the key event was [Clinton's] ready willingness to discuss it himself...") If he stonewalls at first and comes clean later, he gets accused of flip-flopping--he's admitted a lie, thereby convicting himself on the character charge. If he goes to "60 Minutes" to try media judo, flipping the heavy beast over onto its back, he enrages the beast further, and CNN rushes to cover Gennifer Flowers' "news" conference. Only if the candidate is utterly innocent of adultery but refuses to say so too vociferously might he land safely--and then he runs the risk of being thought a wimp.

Downhill Slide

America's media lemmings have plunged so far down the slippery slope that it would take more than an ethics symposium to dry them out. If papers such as the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer try to take the higher road, downplaying the Flowers story and mentioning, as the Inquirer did, the fact that Flowers was paid for her story, they get outflanked by the Associated Press, or "Nightline" or the tabloid dailies. News is what is made by newsworthy people and the rags have become newsworthy. With audiences shrinking, the networks feel pressed to compete with "A Current (Wink-Wink) Affair," "(Not So) Hard Copy" and the rest. Connie Chung and Maury Povich may be taken as symbols of the cohabitation.

Certainly the less-than-squeamish local TV news knows where the ratings are--and they're not with the candidates' environmental positions. With newspaper circulation slipping, even a growing monopoly ceases to shield some of the dailies from the sense that they compete with the National Enquirer, the Globe and the Star. Less than three weeks after front-paging the fine Rosenstiel piece tracking the Flowers story through the respectable media, the Los Angeles Times trumpets the three-parter on "Hard Copy" that charged, by reenactment, that Sam Giancana murdered Marilyn Monroe.

The abdication of judgment to the rags is simply a late development in a general elevation of trash. If higher-end papers now regularly report TV ratings and box-office receipts, why not draw on the National Enquirer, the Globe and the Star as certification of newsworthiness? Can 1 million, 5 million, 10 million readers be wrong? Presumably it would be "elitist" to think so.

One suspects, however, that the slippery slope might have a bottom after all. It seems to stop before it gets to George Bush.

In October 1988, the L.A. Weekly claimed without either named attribution or published evidence that Bush had had several affairs--including a long-running one with an employee, whom the writer named. A week later, the stock market sank 40 points in an hour on the strength of a rumor that the Washington Post was about to publish the story. On this occasion, the mainstream press conducted itself with supreme discretion. Dan Rather said the rumors involved "Bush's personal life." Subsequently, on being appointed to a new job in the Bush administration, the woman in question was said by the Washington Post, in an unusually waggish mood, to have "served President-elect Bush in a variety of positions."

If the Star gets to set the agenda for the Washington Post and "Nightline," one may well ask why the L.A. Weekly--and the Village Voice, which picked up the story – don't. Why hasn't it been a story that the man who campaigns in behalf of family values is reputed to have had congress with not only that mistress but others? Presumably because a reputation sullied without printable evidence isn't enough to cross the threshold into newsworthiness – even if it is newsroom reputation.

The important distinction was that in the case of Bush the woman in question was not willing to be identified, let alone claim to have been spurned. Still, even here, journalistic standards are evidently fluid. On the strength of a purported telephone conversation presumably recorded without Clinton's knowledge (if the voice is indeed Clinton's), "Nightline" decided to go with its Flowers/Star story. When asked by Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer why "Nightline" had legitimized the unverified tabloid story on Flowers, spokeswoman Laura Wessner said, "Look, the Clinton story was all anyone was talking about. It was the major story of the day..."

So sometimes the operating criterion is the state of reportorial buzz. Then the question is not what "everyone" is talking about but what fascinates journalists. By many published accounts, New Hampshire voters were not so interested in the Flowers tale, for all its titillations. In which case we are back to wondering what has become of the scuttlebutt about Republicans.

Apparently the threshold of squeamishness rises in the absence of a complaint. I have been told by reporters who checked out Bush rumors in 1988 that they couldn't find anything--just as I have been told by others that they had off-the-record confirmations from people in a position to know. One must still wonder how many standards are in force.

Major national news organizations had reporters in Arkansas digging for Clinton dirt as early as last summer. On the strength of rumors, one major newspaper wanted to make sure it had its story archived, ready and waiting--just in case someone else broke it. Have major news organizations invested comparable time in researching the Bush rumors?

In his 1990 book "See How They Run," Paul Taylor writes that during the 1988 campaign, the Post's Walter Pincus and Bob Woodward had "tried to track down the..rumors" but never asked either Bush or the woman in question the crucial did-you-or-didn't-you question. Taylor quotes Pincus as saying, "What were we going to ask them?" "They had no final facts," Taylor adds. Did "Nightline" have "final facts" about Clinton?

"With just a few exceptions," Taylor writes, "everyone else [besides the L.A. Weekly] held the line on the most sensational political rumor of 1988." The nagging question is, why is the box score of exposed candidates Democrats 2, Republicans 0? Are the facts of adultery speaking or the reportability threshold?

It is possible, of course, that the discrepancy is coincidence. It is possible that Democratic candidates, being younger, are more likely to be adulterous, at least more recently. It is possible that in piling on Hart and Clinton, reporters were giving vent to their resentment of yuppies who think they can walk on water.

But it is also possible that many reporters, inclined to be Democrats themselves, lean over backwards to avoid the appearance of being unfair to Republicans. One political reporter for a major newspaper recently told me that he had written a tough profile of a leading Democratic official because he had believed in the official and been disappointed by him. When I asked whether anyone was digging for dirt on Bush, this reporter said: "Bush and Quayle are boring. Who wants to spend time with them?"

The Character Question

Still, there is a tendency to assume that American journalism has descended from some Olympus of fairness. True enough, the "character question" got a boost from Watergate. Indisputably, the threshold for reportability has indeed fallen since Fanne Foxe spilled out of Wilbur Mills' car into the Tidal Basin in 1974. Two years later in a fit of proving that American government had to be "as good as its people," Jimmy Carter felt compelled to 'fess up in Playboy to having "committed adultery in my heart many times." Every journalist knows that the standards for FDR and John F. Kennedy were something else again. In 1962, a Washington reporter replied when I asked about a woman who had been described to me as a Kennedy mistress: "Jack Kennedy could be fucking some broad in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and there's not a reporter in this town who'd write about it."

But the current standards represent more than a slippage from the silences of the 1930s and 1960s. They also constitute a regression to the clamor of the early 19th century. The clean old days were not quite so clean. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were not the norm.

The classic case in point is the campaign of 1828. Then, Andrew Jackson supporters printed the charge that the incumbent, John Quincy Adams, while serving as minister to Russia, had procured a young American woman for Czar Alexander I. They also charged that he had slept with his wife before marrying her. For their part, the historian Paul F. Boller, Jr. says in "Presidential Campaigns," anti-Jackson newspapers indulged in the likes of this: "General Jackson's mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE, brought to this country by the British soldiers. She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!" Many a newspaper charged that Jackson had lived with his wife, a "convicted adultress," while she was still legally married to her first husband.

In short, America has scarcely plunged to prurience from a hitherto exalted scrupulousness. The other side of American prudery is American smarminess. What has been revived since the overthrow of Richard Nixon is an earlier homegrown tradition of converting political campaigns into purification rituals. The process is expedited by the sequence of post-1960s morals: cultural libertinism succeeded by a surge of cultural conservatism. As the historian Ruth Rosen points out, moral panics in American history have foundered only when they go too far--to the top. The Salem witch hunt was blunted when it went after leading clergymen. McCarthy's witch hunt was blunted when he went after the U.S. Army.

In recent years, high-minded journalism has prided itself on its elevation of "news judgment" over partisanship, the head over the glands. Now, repression has returned. The tradition that couples prudery and smarminess has come back to life. Journalism, like politics, is in heat. If there is to be any right to privacy whatever, journalists are going to have to dig in their heels. What will it take for them to bet their circulation?

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