December 30, 1998
PHIL PONCE: Roger, looking back at 1998, was there anything distinctive about it or something about it that characterized it for you?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, of course, there was the general nonsense that characterized it, but, above that, better than that, it seemed to be a year of common sense - of unusual common sense - that is, the people's common sense, at least as compared with the sense of the press, or the sense of Congress.
PHIL PONCE: And how did that common sense manifest itself, a little more specifically?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, in terms of - again - Congress and the press - specifically the Clinton business and the Monica Lewinsky business where the people - when asked in polls, or when given a chance in the bi-elections, really showed a great deal of common intelligence in being able to make discriminations that the press and Congress seemed unwilling or unable to make, for instance, to understand nuance, the difference between lying about sex and lying in general. People seemed - people in general seemed to be able to make that distinction, whereas, Congress and the press initially did not. And then there was the other distinction between approval of the job that President Clinton was doing in office, job approval in the polls, and approving of him as a human being. They didn't generally approve of him as a human being, or at least not the way he behaved in the Monica Lewinsky business, but they very much approved of the way he was running the country, and, again, they were able to make that - that distinction and that power of discrimination, which seemed lacking elsewhere, it was nice to see. I mean, that's the way it's supposed to work; people are supposed to know what they're doing.
PHIL PONCE: So you think that discrepancy you're talking about suggests what, a level of sophistication on the part of the public?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Just that, Phil. I think at least for a while we saw a growing level of sophistication about sex and the Monica Lewinsky business, in terms of the press really about journalism. People love a story but people also know the story they want to hear. The press pursued the Monica Lewinsky story as if it were Watergate. If you do pursue the story that way, you're going to wind up with Watergate and the president would be out. People didn't want the president out; therefore, they did not want the story thus pursued, and they wanted a different ending to the story and they let the press know it. Sophistication in other areas - there was a tremendous amount of hoopla and drive, specifically by Oprah Winfrey, on the movie "Beloved," Frank Rich mentioned this in the New York Times, and I know it's true, there's probably no more powerful woman in America than Oprah, and she was on the cover of every magazine and she quite reasonably pushed her movie. Other people didn't like the movie. It wasn't a question they didn't like the subject and they certainly liked the author, Toni Morrison, enough, but they made their own choice, and that was nice to see. The same thing happened with books. You remember that list of 100 - was it 100 best novels?
PHIL PONCE: I think it was the 100 best novels of the English language in the 20th century, something like that.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Something modest like that. So Random House foolishly, I think, tried to come up with that. People immediately rejected many - if not most - of the choices, and Random House backed off, which was just right, as that should be. So you have - in three quite different areas - a level of sophistication - to use your words - use your word. That was very nice to see.
PHIL PONCE: Do you think the - in addition to maybe the sophistication, is there a stronger streak of independence on the part of the public this year?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think there is a stronger streak of independence. Sometimes it shows itself in odd forms, as in the election of Jesse "The Mind" Ventura. We don't know if that's going to work out or not. And sometimes -
PHIL PONCE: You call him Jesse "The Mind." At one point he was known as Jesse "The Body" but -
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm just going along with how the governor wishes to be called.
PHIL PONCE: Carry on.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: And then there's a kind of evolution of thought, which sometimes occurs in the country, sometimes for worse, sometimes for better. I think it's for better this year. The revulsion, repulsion against the murder of the - the fellow in Laramie, Wyoming.
PHIL PONCE: Matthew Shepard.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Matthew Shepard, who was gay and murdered because he was gay. He had hoped that the country would be repelled by such an act in any circumstance, but it seemed to go along with a kind of general feeling that being anti-gay was becoming anachronistic, that it wasn't the thing to do, and that's a great change and a good change from 20/30 years ago. Same thing of the terrible dragging to death of the - of fellow Bird.
PHIL PONCE: James Bird in Jasper, Texas.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: James Bird in Jasper, Texas. It's not that people would have approved of such a horrific thing, but it wasn't just the horror of it; it was the idea that such a thing just didn't belong in the country. And 30 or 40 years ago the people of Jasper, Texas, might have covered it up or at least looked the other way. Now, nobody was more repelled by the act than the citizens of Jasper, Texas. And these are all changes for the good.
PHIL PONCE: So, bottom line, your characterization of the public this year.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: A characterization of the public this year is that there was an achievement of a kind of common humane sense that was very nice to see. It isn't to say that we won't go backwards, but in this season it's nice to hope.
PHIL PONCE: Roger, thank you very much.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|