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American Journalism Review
A Summer Respite From Daffiness?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   July/August 1993

A Summer Respite From Daffiness?   

It's hard to remember worse press performance in Washington.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Summer's arrival may, God help us, end whatever strange atmospherics have made so much of the press go daffy lately. A quiet vacation, a few good novels, naps on the back porch. Anything to get the Washington press, in particular, to settle down.

It is hard to remember a time when the reporting and commentary from Washington have been worse: self-centered, myopic, pompous, often preposterous. Even some of the best people in the business snapped.

Mark Shields called a New York Times editorial "truly hysterical" because it stabbed his former TV partner David Gergen with his Reagan-era past and cited his artful deceptions from those days. The whole response to the Gergen rotation back into office was revealing because he was the ultimate journo-pol, a nice man, a decent man, with buddies everywhere to help him ease back and forth (and to benefit therefrom).

In other aberrations:

Ross Perot, the unelected dropout, was still treated like a major officeholder. Just as polls showed him sinking further, the press made him seem to float effortlessly, despite all the millstones around his neck. There were skeptics, though. At one point when fellow weekend TV analysts seemed agog over Perot's latest, Jack Germond refused to discuss the observations of "a nutcake."

Then there were the "First 100 Days" stories (an odd contrivance of our time) in which the Clinton administration was declared critically ill, the precursor of stories that declared it dead and buried. On May 27 a big headline at the top of the Style section of the Washington Post said: "Another Failed Presidency, Already?"

This appeared on the same day the House voted to approve the Clinton administration's budget package. So, while the print and broadcast press were transfixed by Hairport and Travelgate, a stumbling administration had won a battle of Gettysburg and had a good shot at the biggest domestic change of course for the country in recent times.

A $200 haircut? Outside the inside press corps, people could hardly have cared less. But they did care about the economy and the out-of-control deficit's effects on them. And the House vote meant that maybe we had just seen the beginning of the end of the something-for-nothing era of skyrocketing deficits and national debt.

Travelgate? The Clinton people had stupidly messed with the people who make travel arrangements for members of the press and who cater to their comforts. White House greenhorns also had done other dumb things in this episode, but nothing as serious as that.

Bumbling, stumbling: a lot of that, for sure. But dying? All over in the first four months?

Rollercoaster media events – Clinton hopeless as candidate, Clinton peerless as candidate, Clinton FDR-like as masterful new president, Clinton doomed as new president – could only come from a syndrome that might be called Insider Spasm. In the real world these things never happened. They only seemed to happen – in the minds of people who listened mainly to each other.

Somehow the latest spasm reminded me of the perspective once provided by Furman Bisher, intrepid Atlanta sportswriter, in recounting the off-stride performances of an athlete. He referred to him as a "former immortal." Bisher at least knew what he was doing. l



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