Slouching Toward Sanity  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   March 1999

Slouching Toward Sanity   

Mainstream journalism struggles to find a way out of tabloid hell.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      



``Once you're gone, you can't go back.''
-- Neil Young

SO MAYBE, SLOWLY AND not all that smoothly, but still, we're groping our way out of the wilderness.
Much has been written, in this column as elsewhere, about the seeming collapse of standards when it comes to dealing with tabloid-style stories. In the world of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, cable punditry, late-night monologues and now Larry Flynt, it sometimes seems as if everything is fair game. The barriers are down. The floodgates are open. Anything goes.
Truth will come to light, Shakespeare wrote. Today, everything else will as well.
The question that has haunted serious journalists, that has dominated numerous newsroom meetings and convention panel discussions, is how responsible news organizations should respond.
Once tabloid topics and questionable allegations are in play, and in play widely, can newspapers and broadcast operations simply ignore them? Do they roll over and go with the flow? Or is there something in between?
That middle ground has proven elusive.
In some cases, for reasons journalistic and commercial, it's virtually impossible to opt for the news blackout route. This was clear as far back as 1992, when the New York Times ran very little about Gennifer Flowers' account of her alleged affair with Bill Clinton, and buried the brief stories it did run.
As the charges reverberated, the Flowers problem practically brought Clinton's presidential campaign to a halt. Someone whose only source of news was the Times would have been blindsided. Like, what on earth are Clinton and his wife spinning on ``60 Minutes''?
Too often, however, news organizations have gone in the opposite direction, as in the worst moments of the Clinton/Lewinsky story. And don't get me started on Marv Albert.
A new wrinkle: In recent months, rather than deny, deny, deny la Clinton, politicians have come clean when asked by journalists about past indiscretions. When House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston jettisons his political career, you've got to report it, even if his downfall is triggered by information surfaced by the filthy lucre of a partisan pornographer.
One thing is clear: The phenomenon is not going to go away, no matter how much journalism purists and reformers decry it. The day when the elite media could make the call on whether something comes to light is far behind us.
A few years back, when the Los Angeles Times' culture began to change radically, a longtime editor there warned his colleagues that they were going to have to learn to deal. Otis--as in Chandler, who had departed after turning the Times into a great paper--is surfing, said the editor, and he isn't coming back.
Well, life before Imus isn't coming back either. We're going to have to learn how to live in another world, and talking about how much better it was in the old world won't help.
But after reading Alicia C. Shepard's astute account of Life in the Time of Flynt (see ``Gatekeepers Without Gates'' ), it suddenly struck me that perhaps we may be on the verge of what any Washington pundit worth his or her face time would doubtless call an ``exit strategy.''
Yes, the notion of scores of mainstream journalists trooping up to Flynt's L.A. redoubt to partake of his latest morsel of mischief is as surreal as it is digusting. But look at the denouement.
CNN and C-SPAN (the latter at the last minute) opted not to air his news conference live. Flynt's dirt du jour, this from the closet of impeachment enthusiast nonpareil Bob Barr, a hitherto mercifully unknown Republican from Georgia, turned out to be thin gruel. And it fell flat, a mere footnote in most impeachment roundups the next day, shut out on two network newscasts the following evening. Flynt's ``bombshell'' vanished as swiftly as Bryant Gumbel's TV newsmagazine.
Would it have been better if this story of long-ago abortion and possible infidelity had never seen the light of day, if the Barr hadn't been lowered? Sure. But at least it was treated as the marginal story that it was--at best.
Or take the rumor about Clinton's ``love child.'' An Arkansas woman was claiming that Bill Clinton was the father of her illegitimate son--life imitates ``Primary Colors.''
This tawdry tale was put into play by a conservative Web site linked, inevitably, to Richard Mellon Scaife. The supermarket tabloid Star was salivating. But before going with the story, it was awaiting the results of DNA tests--in other words, trying to determine if the story was true. The usual array of merry pranksters--Drudge, Limbaugh and Leno (now there's a law firm)--fanned the flames. The Clinton-hating New York Post and Washington Times weighed in with breathless dispatches.
Here was a situation with all of the essential ingredients for major media meltdown, end-of-the-millennium-style. There was no getting around it: The story was, you should excuse the expression, ``out there.''
But, go figure. The dog didn't bark. Few mainstream news organizations took the bait. Good thing. Before long, the DNA evidence was in: Bill wasn't the dad.
Now this is no time to declare victory. Don't open up that Mot & Chandon yet. If another round of media hysteria has taken place by the time this piece hits the mail, I'd hardly be shocked. But maybe, just maybe, journalists are beginning to chart a trail for survival in this land mine-laden landscape. Now we have to follow it.

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