|LOWERING THE BAR?|
Feb. 3, 1999
| TERENCE SMITH: In this year of scandal, the press coverage
has been almost as controversial as the news itself. In a recent lecture
to senators at the Capitol, Former President George Bush had this to say
about the fourth estate:
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I worry, too, about sleaze, about excessive intrusion into private lives. I worry about once-great news organizations that seem to resort to tabloid journalism, giving us sensationalism at best and smut at worst. I have got to be careful here, because I used to go around in these public speaking things, and I know Colin is here, and he and I are on this public speaking circuit from time to time, and I was in Salt Lake City, and I received a standing ovation for bashing the press. I felt good about it, and I went to St. Louis -- I went to St. Louis and a few weeks later - and the same thing. 14,000 screaming, brilliant St. Louisans stood up and cheered as I knocked the hell out of the Washington press, and then I got a letter from a friend of mine, and he said, "this is beneath you; you ought not to do this." So I joined Press Bashers Anonymous, which is a -- and I've been clean for six months, and I hope my remarks here do not show that I am off the wagon. But I think it's fair to note with seriousness that I think the times cry out for more accountability, and I think a lot of people in the national press understand that.
|Following the tabloids?|
TERENCE SMITH: To continue this assessment of the media's performance, we're joined by Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University. Patricia Schroeder, a Democratic member of congress from Colorado for 24 years, is now president of the Association of American Publishers. Roger Wilkins is a professor of history at George Mason University, and a former newspaper editorial writer and columnist; and Michael Wolff, media critic for New York Magazine.
Todd Gitlin, let me put the first question to you and ask you, is President Bush onto something here in your view? Are the mainstream news organizations following the tabloids?
TODD GITLIN, New York University: Absolutely. The tabloids have even complained that some of the mainstream news organizations have used terms that they in their respectability wouldn't dare use. It's a pleasure to agree with former President Bush on this. I think it's a long time in the coming. I don't think it can be blamed simply on the tabloids. I don't think it can be blamed on Matt Drudge. I don't think it can be blamed simply on the Internet and all the new technologies or cable television. I think that we've been slipping down this slope for a long time.
It's a culture of confession. It's a culture of a sort of striptease. We have a president who is reckless. We had a Starr inquisition that was unstoppable. We had the press that was in collusion with him to leak and leak and leak and leak and carry water again and again. And, not least, we have a profit-minded juggernaut of the president and a pack mentality that inhibits people who should know better in the media from just saying no, from the moment that the network anchors left Havana more than a year ago, left the story of Cuba and the pope to come back to America to drop everything and to run away with this galloping story, it's been very hard to find journalists who would simply say no.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Wolff, that's a pretty grim picture of the press and its performance. I wonder if you see it that way or feel that the press should perhaps be even more aggressive than they have been?
MICHAEL WOLFF, New York Magazine: I actually absolutely disagree with Todd and with President Bush. As a matter of fact, I think it's worth noting that especially in the '92 campaign, the press took a very clear pass on Bush himself. There were a lot of stories about him that came just to the surface and then were allowed to slip back down again. I think the press has, in fact, been incredibly moralistic about this story. In fact, one of the big stories has been the Sam and Cokie tongue wagging. I think that where we are coming to now is a whole new appreciation of what people are interested in. And one of the things that people are interested in, and I suppose have a right to be interested in, is sex. Or actually let me step back from that. They are interested in learning about the whole person. We're really tired of seeing these dead-from-the-neck-down guys.
TERENCE SMITH: Pat Schroeder, you've lived a life in public policy and in the spotlight. You were co-chairman of Gary Hart's presidential campaign that came a cropper.
PATRICIA SCHROEDER, Former Member of Congress: You know too much, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder if this sounds familiar to you and what you think of President Bush's criticism.
|A profession with standards?|
PATRICIA SCHROEDER: Now, I think there's a grain of truth in it. I mean, he was speaking very generally. I must say, I'm so old, I remember when we were proud of belonging to professions with professional standards and journalists had certain standards and lawyers and everything else. And you really worked on those as a group. I think they've all kind of gone down. I mean, we're now talking about the news industry, like it's making shoes or anything else. And the bottom line is still money. And to get to money, you have to have ratings, and so whenever I talk to my friends who are journalists, they say, "What you don't seem to understand is if our ratings fall, we're out of a job." So, you know, it's really interesting that you sit there and moralize about what we should cover, but -- if that's what people are watching. So I think we have to put this all in the context of where our culture's all moving with this. I also think that Michael Wolff makes a good point. I mean, people are very interested in hypocrisy, and they are tired of politicians who stand there and wag their fingers and preach and don't practice.
TERENCE SMITH: And perhaps the press, as well. Roger Wilkins, you've worked for mainstream news organizations. Are our standards declining?
ROGER WILKINS, George Mason University: Well, I think the headline here is that Todd and Pat agree with George Bush. I think that's really news. I think that you -- looking back at Watergate and the culture that surrounded us when we were working on that story, the whole culture has become coarser, much, much more coarse -- I think considering what the Ziglar and Coleson operation was in the Nixon White House, very simple, very straight forward, and kind of clumsy, as opposed to the kind of permanent campaign that the Clinton White House runs in a very sophisticated media presidency in which the media has been spun and spun and spun and spun. Well, if you look at the mainstream organizations, my sense is that considering the coarseness of the culture and all of this spinning and the kind of adversarial culture for which the White House is substantially responsible, that the mainstream media has been really quite responsible in covering this story, which, after all, is about sex. People are interested in sex, and pretty lurid sex at that. So I think they've been responsible.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
PATRICIA SCHROEDER: Can I just ask a question? I ran into a little eight-year-old boy over the weekend who said to me, I hear you used to be in congress. I said yes. And he said, well, why do you make stupid laws. And I said, could you just expand a little bit. What's upsetting you? And he said, well, why can't you say the word "sex" out loud? And I said, I don't remember that law. He said, well, you know, they're going to throw the president out because he was, you know, he said oral sex. I'm -- okay. So, you know, part of it is you wonder, maybe we should know all these details; but do we have them during waking hours?
TERENCE SMITH: Todd Gitlin, that raises a question, actually, which is: Where do you draw the line? What is -- you have described in your article in the Washington Monthly, journalism these days as sort of non-stop strip search. Is that -- where is the line? Where should it be?
TODD GITLIN: Well, different people would draw it different places, and ought to. There shouldn't be a lockstep, but what they should draw it way on the discretion side. And the important question in reporting private lives is what's the public relevance. Now, when -- I think Pat Schroeder was eluding to this -- when candidates make a big show of their moral purity, candidates of any persuasion, then they're legitimately vulnerable to journalism that inquires into their private conduct, because then they've made private conduct public. But when people have -- carry on with sex or they curse or they do all kinds of unseemly things in private, then I think people should be restrained. I think journalists should then note that not all of life is lived in the round, in a glass house. Now, again, it's hard to -- it's hard for any journalist at any given moment to say, "okay. I'm going to draw the line here." And that's how we got on the slippery slope. We got -- when a reporter asked Gary Hart, "have you ever committed adultery," when reporters got interested in a Supreme Court nominee's smoking marijuana, one after another barrier has fallen. So you draw the line somewhere closer to the old era than we're in now.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike Wolff, is that the line that you would draw?
|A reporter's job.|
MICHAEL WOLFF: Not in the least. A reporter's job, a good reporter's job, a responsible reporter's job is to get the story. And if the story happens to be about sex, which it obviously is at this point, we can't get away from it. There it is. Get the story. I mean, I think that -- I mean, one of the really interesting passes on a story was the Livingston momentary scandal. I mean, here something happened which made the speaker of the House or the soon to be speaker of the House resign. No -- why? What happened here? Do we have the right as journalists, I mean, let's go right to the top -- does the New York Times have the right as journalists to take a pass on this story? It's a big story. What happened? And they've just let it go by, and one of the reasons they let it go by is the underlying assumption here that sex is - that sex is bad.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Pat Schroeder, you were nodding your head at the reference to Bob Livingston. I mean, is that a legitimate pursuit for the press?
PATRICIA SCHROEDER: I honestly think of Bob Livingston, I mean, I don't believe he was one of the moralists that was out preaching. In fact, I've heard him say over and over again, he was from Louisiana. Things were a little slippery there.
TERENCE SMITH: That would explain everything.
PATRICIA SCHROEDER: It was part of the culture, yes, right. I mean, I think if you look at Henry Hyde and some of his problems, especially when he got into the defense-of-marriage act and other such things, I think had we known this, this is what he had in his background, I think that was fairly legitimate at that point. But my criteria, and obviously I'm not dictator, I can't enforce it, but I really think if you make it an issue, if you stand up and say, "I'm purer than anyone," it's very hard to believe anyone could say it with a straight face, but then you have opened yourself up.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger, final thought. Is there a lasting impact here on the media? Have things changed in a way they won't go back?
ROGER WILKINS: Oh, I think they've changed in a way they won't go back because you have all of these talk shows with journalists talking 24 hours a day. There are dueling sounds bites. And it just encourages a lack of a kind of carefulness. Moreover, when you've got Internet -- and it means that mainstream editors are just going to have a harder and harder job holding the sludge out of their papers.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Thank you all. We have to go.