WILL THE MEDIA NOW CHOOSE IDEALISM OVER CYNICISM?
by L. Brent Bozell III
September 4, 1998
To watch press coverage of Bill Clinton for the past three
weeks is to have an eerie feeling that even among the heretofore hardened
89-percent pro-Clinton media, there is a growing feeling that the gig is up.
For five years, the networks enforced an anti-Clinton
scandal rule: nothing this administration ever did was presented as damaging
to Clinton's impregnable war-room defenses, no matter how serious. He was
slick. But not corrupt. When Monicagate erupted, the media paradigm shifted:
within hours, reporters were quickly parsing the gaps in a flustered Clinton's
legalistic remarks like "there is no sexual relationship." But it
only took a few days before the paradigm shifted back into (repeat after me)
"Ken Starr is out of control" once Clinton delivered his
finger-wagging "that woman" lie and Hillary went on television to
claim the vast right-wing conspiracy was behind it all. From last January
through mid-August, that same theme - Clinton the victim, Starr the villain -
was reported endlessly.
It all changed again the weekend prior to The Speech. With
the President slated to testify on Monday morning, the coverage became
suddenly somber. The political jousting was irrelevant. Now it was purely
legal. And dead serious. Almost everyone expected the President to deliver a
slick, Swaggartesque, now-feel-my-pain masterpiece. When instead he gave an
unconvincing mishmash of legalistic admissions and contemptuous Starr-bashing,
media jaws dropped. Clinton's false mea culpa flopped not only with the
public, but also - for the first time - with the press.
On CBS's "Sunday Morning," substitute host Harry
Smith surveyed the wreckage: "There was an awful lot of judging done this
week, grading the President on his character, on his leadership in a time of
crisis, his capacity to govern after his humiliating speech to the American
people on Monday evening. Every word he speaks, every action he takes is being
scrutinized through a prism of cynicism. Is this the way Bill Clinton is
destined to be viewed through his time in office?"
Rita Braver explained: "To try to help us sort through
it all, we talked to some prominent and thoughtful Americans." In another
time, we'd snicker at their liberals-only list: Mario Cuomo, historian Douglas
Brinkley (author of a book rehabilitating Jimmy Carter), and UPI White House
reporter Helen Thomas. But the subject was no longer politics, but ethics -
and these liberals were clearly troubled.
Thomas wondered why Clinton would ruin his presidency so
recklessly, and about the best thing she could say is "he's still got a
little bit of an edge on Nixon." Brinkley suggested people were laughing
at Clinton's back-to-business line. Cuomo could muster only this defense:
"You're sailing the ship of state through troubled waters. You have a
captain who's very good at being a captain. Now you find out the captain is an
S.O.B. who's disloyal to his wife, who's unkind to his closest friends. What
do you do, dismiss the captain? And say let the ship sail without our good
captain? That's foolish."
In this new paradigm, the old categories are crumbling. Some
Republicans are fearing a sex-story backlash from the Geraldos and Salon-site
parrots. Some Democrats are so furious with Clinton they want him gone
yesterday. The new distinctions that matter, at least until the Starr report
threatens another paradigm shift, are not liberal vs. conservative, or
Republican vs. Democrat, but moralized vs. de-moralized.
In the de-moralized camp, combine defeatist conservatives
who think Clinton can get away with anything with an apathetic public with no
appetite for outrage. Through their silence, they give comfort to the
hard-core Clintonistas who continue to promote falsehoods (or silence) based
on the calculation that they can get away with it
In the moralized corner, collect Democrats like Pat Moynihan
and Paul McHale and Republicans like Bob Barr and Dan Burton who are demanding
justice be served. Add to this camp a growing number of journalists who are
demonstrating remarkable integrity in their coverage of this mess.
The moralized can take their cue from the media of old, who
flaunted their idealism when Iran-Contra ruled the political news. Bill Moyers
proclaimed in the companion book to his 1988 PBS series "The Secret
Government" that "None of us, not even the President, can pick or
choose among the laws we wish to obey. A President who is nonchalant about
this contract deserves to be impeached. A people who forget it will have
invited the darkness."
The irony is overwhelming, and perhaps too hard to handle
for journalists who cut their teeth on Vietnam and Watergate, but they are now
in the same camp as "Clinton haters" in presenting the case for
idealism. Vietnam and Watergate were not proud moments for America, but the
media presented the job to be done as an idealistic task: prove the system
worked. If the President has contempt for the rule of law, he must not stand.
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