Rush from Judgment

The main question left from the Monica era is: Was it inevitable? Not the trysts themselves--whether they were psychologically inevitable, apart from being insane, can now be left to various Clintons in their future books. Nor is it really worth pondering at the moment whether Kenneth Starr's fixation on the case, or the Republican Congress's exploitation of it in the drive to impeachment, was inevitable. Their responses were logical extensions of the scorched-earth party politics of the last 15 years. We could say that Starr, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and the others resembled Bill Clinton (and Bob Livingston) in not being able to restrain their least attractive but apparently strongest drives.

The interesting question concerns the press. For most of the last year--from the weekend of January 19, 1998, when the three network news anchors began scrambling back from Havana, leaving Fidel Castro and the pope to meet in relative privacy, until the revving up of the impeachment hearings just after the congressional elections--Monica dominated coverage more completely than Watergate did until its final months, and more than the Vietnam War did through most of the 1960s. It was like nothing since . . . well, since the Diana story of the preceding fall, and the O. J. story before that. And while Monica resembled Diana and O. J. in the degree of media saturation, it differed in that the press could claim to have "won" the Monica fight. Reporters (especially Newsweek's Michael Isikoff) did win in a technical sense--rumors that sounded far-fetched at the beginning of the year were part of the stipulated body of fact by the end. (The turning point was of course the cigar story. Once that was true, presumptively everything else was too.) And the segments of the press that pushed the story hardest won in a larger sense: there is no denying that the episode has now taken on historic gravity, forever bracketing Clinton at least with Andrew Johnson and conceivably with Richard Nixon.

But neither the Clintonian self-indulgence that started the story nor the Republican determination that may end it mean we can just forget about everything that happened in between. Through much of the year, polls indicated that people thought Clinton had behaved like an idiot--but that didn't keep them from also being skeptical of Starr. The press should be capable of at least as complex a view. A volley of our shots finally hit a target, but it is still worth asking how many were fired, what they were aimed at, and who else got killed.

If Clinton's excesses were depressing for their familiarity, exactly the same is true of the press's. The most surprising aspect of the Monica excesses was how unsurprising--how perfectly predictable--they were. I mean that literally: the first week the story broke, we held a meeting at U.S. News & World Report, where I was then the editor, to think about the ways in which the news biz was most likely to screw up in the coming months. [1] The idea was to increase by at least a tiny degree our resistance to exactly these errors. But as the months went on, it was as if every media hand-wringing session held in the aftermath of the Rodney King coverage, every bit of press introspection after the era of O. J., every purported lesson of the Diana orgy, had never occurred--notwithstanding that, again, the press "won" in the sense that Clinton ended up getting impeached. The fundamental and predictable problem was a return of an "all or nothing" mentality, in which the running spectacle-story of the moment--be it Monica, Diana, or a war--squeezes everything else out of the news. The extent of the squeeze is most noticeable when two would-be spectacles interfere with each other and fight it out for coverage: the O. J. verdict and a State of the Union address, for instance, or an impeachment vote and the start of a war on Iraq. Even if we stipulate that every accusation against Clinton was true, even if we assume (as I do not) that he should have been impeached, it's still hard to contend that the story should have forced out so many other subjects for such a long time.

So, was this all inevitable--the press's recapitulation of its past excesses? The answer is surprisingly significant, no matter what you think the correct answer is. If reporters, editors, and broadcasters really had no choice in the matter and were forced to overplay Monica for commercial reasons--or because of the rise of the Internet, or whatever--then journalism is in a worse predicament than even Newt Gingrich might think. But if, on the other hand, reporters and editors had more room to maneuver than most now claim, and were able to shape the coverage by their own choice, then it's worth wondering how they might make different choices the next time.

What Went Wrong

For the record, what exactly was embarrassing about the press's performance in this case? For half a dozen years critics inside and outside the press have worked up a standard list of complaints about Media Gone Wrong. Nearly everything that was generally thought to be a problem proved to be a problem when exposed to Monica.

No sense of proportion. This was the big one. It is reassuring to go back to an old newspaper or newsmagazine and see that events considered important in retrospect got attention at the time. ("Hitler Invades Poland.") It is intriguing but less heartening to go back and see saturation coverage for trends or events that seem like sideshows once they are done. (Banner headlines about the departure of Bert Lance from the Carter administration, for one example; or the mere existence of the Menendez brothers, for another.) As a child I used to play a board game that had been my father's when he was a boy; it involved making up a newspaper front page from a supply of stock stories and headlines. LINDBERGH BABY KIDNAPPED! CRYSTAL PALACE BURNS! The screaming power of the headlines told more about the mood of the 1930s than about the lasting meaning of such events.

Journalists aren't supposed to be historians, but if we have any claim to expertise over the typical guy in a bar, it should lie in our ability to say: This event is more significant than that one, and I'm going to explain why. That ability is what the famed "nose for news" is all about.


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The Monica frenzy will, I suspect, be seen in the long run as a Bert Lance/Menendez brothers moment rather than a Watergate moment in press coverage--or more precisely, as an Andrew Johnson rather than a Richard Nixon event. That is, as an episode whose heavy media coverage illustrates the mood of its times rather than reflecting the magnitude of the story itself. The problem with all-out saturation coverage, whether about Diana or Monica, is what gets left out--all the things that aren't written about, published, or placed into public awareness because of the obsession of the moment. It may seem that in the age of cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet there is a limitless amount of space for news. But two journalistic vehicles remain incredibly short on space--network TV broadcasts, and weekly newsmagazines--and only so many stories can fit on a newspaper's front page. Anyone who's worked in a big news organization knows that when a Monica- or O. J.-style frenzy begins, other news simply gives way. The foreign correspondents take long(er) lunches, the people writing about science or the economy leave work early, the "news hole" for non-scandal news disappears. You can see the effect on shows designed to add perspective--Nightline, even Crossfire or Larry King Live. When there's no O. J.-style story, their producers have to think up new topics. During a frenzy they stop trying, and thereby magnify rather than offset the impression that only one thing matters in the world.

Prediction rather than explanation. It is now clear that, apart from lucky-number psychics, political pundits have the worst track record of any group that presumes to tell the future. Scientists might be worse when it comes to predicting at what moment, exactly, cold fusion will work--but the point is, they don't try. Two days before the 1998 election, every pundit who went on record on the talk shows and opinion sections foresaw that the Republicans would gain seats in both the Senate and the House. [2]

The complaint is not that their guesses were wrong--mine would have been too. It is instead that the journalistic culture now places so much emphasis on something it can't do--guessing--rather than on the interpretation and explanation it could presumably do better if it tried. This habit was on full display during the Monica era, starting with the immediate "This presidency is over!" pronunciamentos on the Sunday shows. Through the next ten months, as if by reflex, pundits and "normal" reporters alike turned each day's events into an opportunity for speculation about what they thought would happen a day, a week, a year from now. With their emphasis on why Politician X might adopt Strategy Y, talk shows began to resemble the Chris Farley/George Wendt "Da Bears" skits on Saturday Night Live, in which beery sports fans compare predictions of who would win if Godzilla and Mike Ditka had a fight. The one exercise in prediction that proved to be useful--Slate's "Clintometer," assessing the day-by-day probability of Clinton leaving office--was the exception proving the rule, since in the guise of a forecast it was actually an analysis, explaining the impact of recent events. [3]

Why spend so much time prognosticating, when the current evidence--Clinton still in office, no Republican gains at the polls--suggests we might as well have been gassing about Da Bears? There is a possible high-road answer: since Washington politics involves constant reassessment of who is stronger than whom, there's a point in discussing who might win the next election or the next test of strength. There is a low-road answer too: this kind of speculation is unbelievably easy, because it requires no extensive reporting or research. And there is a real answer, which is that the barroom forecasting has become so prominent precisely because no one in the media takes it seriously. If they did take it seriously, then like racing touts or investment strategists who made chronically bad calls, they'd risk being out of business. Instead, it's a pro wrestling exercise, a lark. Three days after the 1998 election, a roundtable of pundits on the nationally syndicated Diane Rehm radio show chortled about how wrong they'd all been about the results. Next question from Rehm: "So, what do the results mean for the Year 2000 presidential election?" Since the experts had not been able to see one day into the future, maybe they'd have better luck looking ahead two years. Rehm sounded sheepish as she asked, but the experts plugged right ahead--except, to his credit, NPR's Daniel Schorr, who pointed out the insanity of the exercise.

Internally driven stories. Institutions fall apart when they start doing what's convenient for internal reasons, rather than addressing the outside world--the customer who has to be wooed, the enemy who needs to be fought, the mystery that has to be solved.

Monica was an "internal" story from the start. It was interesting to people in Washington because it was about people in Washington. The sense of zip in the whole city picked up--as you drove through town, you saw crowds of cameramen outside the grand jury site; pundits, lawyers, and politicians scooted from studio to studio to give their latest views. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the O. J. and Diana stories, Monica was not doing much for newsstand sales or viewership. When the Starr Report was finally released, cigar and all, it sold strongly; and niche cable outlets could attract larger-than-normal audiences by concentrating on Monica news. But most weeks the story did not do well for newsmagazines or network news--and yet the media kept dishing it out.

Journalists are not, of course, just shopkeepers meeting market demand. The highest achievement of the trade is to make people care about and understand events or subjects they had not previously been interested in. This requires journalists to be internally guided to a large degree--but not just by parochial, insider obsessions. Sally Quinn's notorious "This Town" article, published in the Washington Post the day before the 1998 election, attracted immediate attention because it was smoking-gun proof of how parochial the obsessions could be. [4]People who had spent their careers in Washington--and referred to it as "this town," as Quinn pointed out--were mad at Clinton for (as they imagined it) making their culture look bad, and they took it out on him with their reports. An internal compass is one thing; a Marie Antoinette–like assumption that the masses are wrong is something else.

Use by leakers. Leaks are inevitable, and so is relying on them in reporting. But since leakers always have a motive, journalists serve their readers by suggesting the context in which leaked information should be seen. Failure to do so was rampant during the first six months of the Monica saga. Many of the incredible-seeming, leaked claims of the first few weeks turned out to be true (the cigar, the dress, the months-long liaison story itself). A few did not (the President being caught in flagrante delicto by his staff). What seems clear about nearly all the claims is that they came from sources with an ax to grind against the White House--Lucianne Goldberg, the Paula Jones defense team, and (circumstantial evidence strongly suggests) the independent counsel's staff. This was the most valid point Steven Brill made in his widely publicized debut article in Brill's Content: whether the claims against the President proved true or false, the readers deserved a clue about the motivation behind the leaks--and significantly more protection against a torrent of purely anonymous leaks.

Merger of entertainment and news. For a decade or more the news business has been trapped in a vicious cycle. Nervousness about falling market share leads to more tabloid-style gore-and-celebrities emphasis in the news. This higher tabloid quotient puts normal news more in head-to-head competition with real tabloids (Hard Copy) or real entertainment coverage (People, Entertainment Weekly), and its market share shrinks further still. If this is the news, even the natural audience for the news thinks: Who needs it?

Within a week or two, the tabloid-entertainment component of the Monica story overtook its other meanings, and the cycle continued.

Making the journalists the story. Consult "White House in Crisis" on the Fox News Channel, any hour of the day.

 

The Press Is Nuts

But wait! Maybe we are being too negative. Maybe in remaining true to past traits the press did the job it was meant to do. That is one of several ways to view the Monica record. Let's consider four hypotheses, each with different implications for what is inevitable in the future of journalism.

The press went nuts, but that's how the press is, so calm down. This might be called the Lewis Lapham hypothesis. In the last few years Lapham, the editor of Harper's, has written wry essays saying that we are but a band of jesters, and that it's pompous to expect anything more than tabloid-mindedness from the press.

For the real tabloids, this is a completely convincing defense. I love reading Weekly World News and the National Enquirer, because they are true to their mission. But that mission hardly fits the pretensions of the punditariat that kept the Monica story alive.

The press went nuts, and that's the price of liberty. We can call this the Maureen Dowd [5] hypothesis, after the New York Times columnist who wrote countless screeds against Clinton before turning against Starr late in the year. When the election was over--but the impeachment vote had not yet re-legitimized the emphasis on Monica--she conceded that she was tired of the Monica story, and that the press had run amok in various ways. But: despite public hostility, reporters had just been doing their essential job. "The impure history of modern America--Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra--proves that reporters have a duty to dig for the truth, whatever the public thinks. . . . The danger is that next time, when the cover-up takes place in a less gray area, reporters will look at the numbers and go home early. Next time, it may not be about sex and lies. It may be about life and death."

OK: When it is about life and death, reporters should dig like crazy--as a few did during Watergate, more during Vietnam, not enough during Iran-Contra (nor during the financial life and death savings and loan scandal). The whole idea behind "news judgment" is that reporters and editors can draw such distinctions: certain misdeeds are truly ominous, others are merely disgusting. If anything, the press's power to draw attention to genuine life and death problems is diminished if it treats every passing scandal as a "cry wolf" cataclysm.

Let's assume that, after fully exercising their news judgment, some reporters and editors thought that Clinton's sins were of life and death magnitude, and that he had to be removed. That would be a reason to keep reporters on the story, to keep the stories in the paper (or on the air), and to ignore the indications that the public didn't care. The public doesn't always know what's good for it. But even assuming all that, the idea of proportionality remains. Not even Tom DeLay would think that Clinton's evil blots out every other topic in the world. [6]

The press went nuts, and things will only get worse. Here we return to inevitability, and what might be called the Marvin Kalb hypothesis. Just before last fall's election, Kalb, a longtime TV newsman and more recently the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard, published an essay on the rise of the "New News." Monica coverage was indeed rushed, sloppy, and disproportionate, Kalb said. And in these failings it reflected deeper structural changes in the press, especially these two developments:

 

-- runaway technology, ranging from internet "publishers" like Matt Drudge, to portable news-cams that allow live coverage of countless local disasters, to the proliferation of cable channels that keep the news cycle running 24 hours a day. The cumulative effect of these changes, Kalb says, has been to make it harder for journalists to exercise judgment even if they wanted to. As the news system has become more fragmented, readers and viewers have more choices than in the days of the Big Three broadcast networks. That is arguably good for the viewer--but it makes producers and editors so nervous about their vanishing audiences that they have none of the gravitas that surrounded CBS or NBC in the old days. And the speed with which rumors get "out there," and must be reported on, frightens editors away from their fundamental role, which is to draw the line between private and public information. [7]

-- a shift in the underlying business model, away from the complicated mixture of goals a generation ago and toward a simple emphasis on profitability and ratings. When TV and newspapers were covering the Watergate story, many significant outlets were not even expected to turn a profit (the network news divisions were run as loss leaders), and the main newspapers were family-dominated businesses with an expressed mission beyond quarterly profit. By the time of the Monica story, the only main not-for-profit outlets were NPR and PBS, while the corporate quarterly profit model was in place at the broadcast networks and most newspapers. The main structural change for the better in the intervening generation was the creation of C-SPAN. As the quarterly profit model spreads, there are familiar ripple effects: fewer foreign bureaus, less investment in reporting, more tabloid stories, and news as pure product rather than as a business with a major impact on public life.

 

These trends are real. But emphasizing them has a peculiar consequence: in the short term, it excuses journalists their excesses in the Monica (or Diana, or O. J.) case. But in the long term it should make reasonable people wonder: Why stay in this business at all? If the worst parts of the New News really do represent the inevitable future, then perhaps sane reporters should drop the First Amendment folderol, stop pretending that their role is to help us understand what's going on in the world, and start describing themselves as "content providers," and nothing more. Some content providers will provide sophisticated news to an upscale readership, via the Financial Times and online services. Others will provide mass fare, as network programmers or entertainment-magazine editors do. But the idea that this "content" is at all special--that it deserves its unique protection from government control--is a stretch.

 

The Geriatric Punditariat

This being America, there is a fourth, happier alternative. Despite the business and technological pressures, despite the nuttiness of the year just past, there are two good reasons to think, or hope, that the press can do a better job next time.

One is that some of the press did a better job this time. After the frenzied first month, some editors began reasserting their responsibility--just because a rumor was "out there," via Matt Drudge, they didn't have to carry it themselves until they'd satisfied their own standards of proof. By midsummer, there were fewer stories based on purely anonymous sources (perhaps because there were fewer juicy nuggets left to report). Some news organizations kept the story in perspective--"perspective" meaning the recognition that other things were going on in the world. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page naturally trumpeted the Clinton Crimes as an ongoing series, but the very format of the Journal's news pages, with no eight-column headlines, forced the story into a more proportionate role. If these people figured out a way to handle New News pressures, maybe there is still room for individuals to make a difference.

 

 

The other source of hope is less high-minded and perhaps therefore more reliable. The media culture that produced these effects may be described in various ways--experienced, isolated, sophisticated, cynical, articulate, pompous, the list goes on. But for our purposes its most salient trait is that it is old.

By the end of this year, I will be 50--a fact that makes me feel like an absolute geezer most of the time. But not among the punditariat! When I compare myself to the people who have set the media tone during the Monica era, the spring of youth returns to my step. ABC's This Week contains one panelist under 40--George Stephanopoulos, who will be 38 this year--but the rest are, umm, "seasoned veterans": Sam Donaldson, 65; George Will, 58; Cokie Roberts, 56. On Meet the Press, Tim Russert (49) often hosts David Broder (70) and William Safire (70). Face the Nation gives us Bob Schieffer (62) and Gloria Borger (46). Ted Koppel will be 59; Charlie Rose, 57; Jeff Greenfield, 56; David Gergen, 57. The nation's three main editorial pages are directed by Howell Raines (56), Meg Greenfield (69), and Bob Bartley (62). Network news: Dan Rather (68), Peter Jennings (61), Tom Brokaw (59). Jim Lehrer will be 65. On 60 Minutes we have Mike Wallace (81) plus Ed Bradley (58), and Morley Safer (68). Among talk show regulars, John McLaughlin will be 72, Robert Novak 68, Pat Buchanan 61, Howard Fineman 51, and Margaret Carlson refuses to divulge her age. Today's enfante terrible, Maureen Dowd, will be 47; yesterday's, Sally Quinn, will be 58. (All ages are as of the end of 1999.)

Yes, there are exceptions, including the numerous MSNBC-ettes who have made their names on Monica. Writing has never been the province of child prodigies, and many writers are sharper, wiser, and better at age 70 than they were at 35. The reporters we admire most are those who use each year to learn something new, and whose achievement grows through their life. Tom Wolfe will be 68! Oh, to be as young as him! Writing is one of the few trades that can demonstrably be practiced at the highest level till very late in life.

But there is such a thing as an old, complacent establishment. And today's press hierarchy looks very much like it. [8] Unlike Tom Wolfe, it is not constantly searching for new worlds or experiences. Unlike itself a generation ago, it seems less fascinated by testing, improving, and expanding the possibilities of its craft than in (often harrumphingly) exercising the power it enjoys.

Discouraging? Yes, but only in the short run. The thing about old orders is that, inevitably, they pass.


Footnotes

[1] In tribute to The American Prospect's role in bridging the worlds of academia and journalism, let's go to the footnotes. Eight days into the Monica era, I had to fill in at the last minute for Harry Evans, my immediate boss at U.S. News, who got sick on the morning of a speech to the Overseas Press Club in New York. After reading to the audience selections from one of his recent speeches, I then ad-libbed the ways in which I thought the political press--including U.S. News--was most likely to make mistakes in the weeks to come. One comment looks unfortunate in retrospect--my insistence that the reports of a fluid-stained dress were irresponsible, because at the time they were based entirely on rumor. Technically the point was fair, because it was all rumor at that time. But since the rumors eventually proved true, that complaint looks bad. The rest of the forecast turned out to be depressingly close to what actually occurred. See for yourself: www4.usnews.com/usnews/news/clin-jf.htm.

[2] OK, if you are a pundit who foresaw the Democratic gains that actually occurred, sorry. Every pundit whose work I saw or heard about said that the Republicans would increase their margins in Congress. In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz summarized the predictions of the usual big-shots, for handy reference the next time you hear them assessing the prospects of Al Gore, Bill Bradley, or George W. Bush: "On the McLaughlin Group, John McLaughlin said the GOP would gain 13 House seats; Pat Buchanan, 12; Michael Barone, 8; former Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley, 7; and Eleanor Clift, 6. On ABC's This Week, George Will said 6 to 20 seats, Bill Kristol said 15. On CNN's Capital Gang, Al Hunt and Robert Novak both saw the Republicans picking up five Senate seats." As it happened, the Republicans gained no seats in the Senate and lost five in the House. And if you were a pundit who, in the week after the 1998 election, when Newt Gingrich was being hounded out of power for his attack-the-President advice, nonetheless predicted that Clinton would be impeached by the end of the year--please speak up!

[3] Before somebody else points this out: in the second week of the scandal, the cover of U.S. News was a picture of Clinton and Monica with the question, "Is He Finished?" My defense is: we did this once; it was the obvious question at the time; and the story said the answer was, "not necessarily." And before anyone points this out: Slate is published by Microsoft, which is my employer at the moment.

[4] The story was titled "Not in Their Back Yard: In Washington, That Letdown Feeling" and can be found at the Post's website, http://www.washingtonpost.com. It is worth whatever retrieval fee must be paid to find it, because it is a more lastingly important document of the times than is the Starr Report. Valuable as anthropology--chronicling the outlooks of the "more than 100" Washington establishmentarians she says she interviewed--it is entirely unself-conscious in its presentation of the D.C. establishment as the "real victims" of the Clinton affair. The most charming aspect of the story was Quinn's later explanation of why she wrote it. On Meet the Press in early December, she said that endless effort had gone to finding out what average people thought about Clinton and Lewinsky. But who had taken the time to find out what the Washington establishment thought?

[5] Oh no! After including a paragraph or two that tepidly criticized Dowd in my book Breaking the News three years ago, I've received half a dozen retaliatory bursts of vituperation in her column. Maureen, enough! I would use a better example here if there were one.

[6] There's proof! If you compare the proportion of DeLay's speeches last year devoted to Monica in particular, and the perfidy-of-Clinton in general, to the proportion of Larry King shows on the Monica saga, the Whip would seem to be more broadminded than the King. After all, DeLay was required also to sound off about taxes, Social Security, NATO, immigration, and so on. The point is, even the most obsessed anti-Clintonite in Congress was better able to "see the world steady and see it whole" than much of the media did. (The see it steady/see it whole goal was laid out by C. P. Scott, founding editor of the Manchester Guardian, paraphrasing Matthew Arnold.)

[7] To spell this out: private information consists of rumor, factoid, gossip, suspicions, and the other delights with which we enliven each day. Published information inevitably has greater weight--to inform, and to damage. The main reason editors exist is to determine when information is important or solid enough to cross from the private to the public realm. In the first weeks of Monica, when rumors were reported simply because they were "out there," editors were stampeded out of doing this job.

[8] Surprising comparison: the grizzled, "out of touch" figures who masterminded the war in Vietnam were sprightlier than today's press establishment. In 1968, William Westmoreland was 54, Robert McNamara was 52, Henry Kissinger was 45, and Lyndon Johnson was 60.

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