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From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Clinton's Legacy To Journalism   

He reinforces the importance of weighing official pronouncements very carefully.


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


``People say believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.'' --Marvin Gaye

IT'S COMMON WISDOM that Watergate and the Vietnam War prompted the news media to take a less credulous approach toward government.
Artful dodges, massive misrepresentations and blatant lies by government officials made it impossible for journalists to take future pronouncements on faith.
It won't be long before a third cause is added to that unhappy litany: William Jefferson Clinton.
The seven-month disinformation campaign against the Monica Lewinsky allegations may be the high (low?) watermark of the Clintonian approach to the truth, but hardly its first manifestation.
Whenever the president's personal behavior has been called into question--the draft, smoking marijuana, bimbo eruptions, the Whitewater land deal--the response has been the same: bob and weave, counterpunch with abandon, unleash the world-class spin machine.
The Clinton administration's approach to bad news--and to the news media--comes as no surprise.
Not long ago I was rereading what turned out to be an extremely prescient piece by Leslie Kaufman in the March 1993 issue of AJR (I know, I know; I do need to get out more). It was a close look at how the Clinton forces had dealt with the press during the 1992 campaign and what that portended now that Clinton had taken up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There it all was: controlling the message, spinning the spin, evading the tough questions.
Several passages stand out:
``The mode of operation of the Clinton campaign was to be as resistant as possible to giving out information.'' These were the words of Howell Raines, who had been the New York Times Washington editor and who in recent years has been a harsh Clinton critic as editor of the paper's editorial page.
And Kaufman wrote, ``Reporters who did cover Clinton during the campaign could have told their White House colleagues that Clinton's promises of `openness' and communication with the American people don't necessarily apply to the Fourth Estate.''
Sadly, the Clinton zigzag has characterized the administration's approach to public policy as well as personal peccadilloes.
It's often pointed out that public opinion polls aren't long-term indicators; they are simply a snapshot of sentiment at a given moment, subject to rapid reconfiguration. The same could be said of the Clinton positions on affairs of state.
Al Gore is the one pushing reinventing government. But the president has raised reinventing one's political positioning to an art form. On issue after issue, he has adjusted his stances to reflect the latest poll numbers.
That isn't all bad. Rigidity and ideological purity out of step with mainstream America is a recipe for oblivion. It helped keep Demo-crats out of the White House for quite some time.
It's my sense that Bill Clinton is the most brilliant politician I have ever encountered--or at least was until that awful Monday night non-apology in August, when his rage at his predicament (and Ken Starr) overwhelmed his often awesome instincts. And he certainly deserves credit for steering his party away from litmus tests on fringe issues and closer to the soul of heartland America.
But there are alternatives to clinging to dogma and clinging to nothing except your office. The Clinton maelstrom poses challenges for journalists.
Some critics have castigated recent political reporting for being too analytic, for being preoccupied with political nuance, deconstructing the motivations behind and the ramifications of the latest government initiative before laying out the initiative itself.
According to this school of thought, journalists need to get out of the way: They should directly transmit the proposals and views of political figures to the electorate, without picking them apart before anyone has even heard what they are.
There's no doubt that these critics have a point: Some coverage is so preoccupied with reading the tea leaves that it's nearly impossible to determine the gist.
But what do you do when you're up against an utterly disingenuous politician? Of what use is it to focus your newsprint and airtime on what Candidate X is saying when there's every indication that he or she will move in a different direction after the votes are counted?
The background, the context, the track record--all of these are necessary to help the reader or viewer make sense of political reality. They need journalism, not stenography.
So the idea is hardly to back away from skepticism, from explanatory journalism, from going the extra mile to sort out the truth.
This carries with it a serious burden. There's a huge difference between healthy skepticism and flat-out antagonism. But it's a line that has often been crossed in the heat of combat. The image of an angry pack of reporters dogging the president is profoundly alienating to many Americans.
Not long ago I was talking to a woman who, it turned out, was a star ice hockey player. A friend teased that she had led the league in penalty minutes. This, she admitted, was true, but there was more to the story: She had drawn twice as many penalty minutes from opponents as she had racked up.
The press needs to make sure that it isn't goaded into committing dumb fouls, no matter the provocation.