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Is the Press out of Control?



Think Tank Transcripts: Is The Press out of Control?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. The press is drowningus in Whitewater, the latest media firestorm to sweep across Americanpolitics. Some call it a feeding frenzy. Others say journalists arejust doing a necessary job. Well, are media firestorms changingAmerican politics, and is political coverage getting too personnel?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and consensus are JudgeRobert Bork, who experienced a media feeding frenzy firsthand when hewas nominated to the Supreme Court; Professor Lani Guinier, whosenomination to a high government post also provoked a media storm;Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, authorof'Feeding Frenzy--How Attack Journalism Has Transformed AmericanPolitics; and Dr. Suzanne Garment of the American EnterpriseInstitute and author of 'Scandal--The Culture of Mistrust in AmericanPolitics.'

Our topic: Firestorm--is the media out of control? This week onThink Tank.

MR. WATTENBERG: American politics has always been a rough andtumble game, and the press has always done much of the pummeling, butsomething has changed today. On certain kinds of stories the mediaseems faster, meaner, more competitive and addicted to new rules andrituals. Many press barrages deal with alleged unlawful actscommitted by public officials, and some focus on personal and moralfailings, while others center on bitter differences over policy.

What's happened? Well, some trace the rise of attack journalismback to the Watergate cover-up in 1974 when the press played a majorrole in forcing President Nixon to resign.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: (From videotape.) I shall resign thepresidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will besworn in as president at that hour in this office.

MR. WATTENBERG: That led in the post-Watergate era to politicianswho to tried to regain the public trust.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: (From videotape.) I'll never tell lie.I'll never make a misleading statement.

MR. WATTENBERG: But Carter himself was tainted later when BertLance, director of Carter's Office of Management and Budget, resignedamidst reports of financial wrongdoing. The Iran-contra hearingsoffered yet another media fusillade, ending several public careersand launching at least one Senate bid in the state of Virginia.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas became the focus of the fullblast of the media and of the Senate when, during his nominationhearings, he was accused of sexual misconduct, a charge never provedand still in dispute. CLARENCE THOMAS (Supreme Court JusticeNominee): (From videotape.): This is a circus. It's a nationaldisgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'mconcerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.

MR. WATTENBERG: And, of course, President Clinton himself has notescaped when the press put itself in overdrive. Early on, Zoe Baird,his first nomination for attorney general, withdrew after the pressdisclosed that she had not paid Social Security for her child'snanny. And after less than a year and a half in office, there hasbeen 'Travelgate,' 'Hairgate,'; 'Troopergate,'; and 'Whitewatergate.'

The result? It is probably more than mere coincidence thatAmericans' faith in their government has dropped. In 1964, 78 percentof Americans said they trusted Washington to do what is right most orall of the time. But by 1994, that number had fallen from 78 percentto only 20 percent.

MR. WATTENBERG: Professor Larry Sabato, is the press out ofcontrol these days?

MR. SABATO: Absolutely. Or I'd to put it another way, I'd say themedia's excesses are out of control, and they're out of controlbecause of the changes that have taken place in the modern media. Itused to be, at least in the modern era I don't want to go back to thebeginning of the American republic when the media were far worse thanthey are today but in the modern era, in the beginning you had apress driven by the best, driven by those with the highest standards.Today you have a kind of lowest common denominator journalism.

MR. WATTENBERG: What's the difference between a media firestormand just a big story?

MR. SABATO: Oh, I think it's this: I guess I do it by definingwhat a feeding frenzy is, which is what a firestorm is. A feedingfrenzy is a critical mass of journalists that leaps in unison tocover a scandalous topic and almost always does so excessively.

MR. WATTENBERG: Suzie Garment, in your book 'Scandal' do you buythat definition and analysis?

MS. GARMENT: I certainly do. Larry is the expert. Let me add,though, that other things as well have changed in the politicalcommunity. The rules among good politically active people, not justjournalists, have become more strict on questions of ethics forinstance. We have much more information available to us about thebehavior of public officials.

MR. WATTENBERG: Have we set up sort a scandal industrystructurally?

MS. GARMENT: You bet. That is, we've not only created professionslike the press with the habits of investigation, but we've given themmuch more material than ever before and many more rules on which topin stories. So we shouldn't be very surprised.

MR. WATTENBERG: And some of these are new institutions I meanindependent prosecutors, independent counsels, new inspectorgenerals. That's is that a fairly new development?

MS. GARMENT: Some of these are, in fact, new developments, andthere was a whole series of them after Watergate, precisely becausewe felt confirmed in our mistrust of government and we wanted plentyof institutions around that were independent and were telling uswhatever was wrong. And now we're finding out.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you all believe that government today is morecorrupt than it used to be?

JUDGE BORK: Oh, no. Not by a long shot. Government was verycorrupt, I think, for a long period of time. I think the corruptionnow tends not to be about money so much as it tends to be about powerand ideology.

MS. GUINIER: I agree with that.

MR. WATTENBERG: More

MS. GUINIER: Not that it's corruption, but that the contest whichtakes place is really a contest about policy. And yet the way thepress often covers it, it becomes a fight over personality.

JUDGE BORK: But one reason for that, of course, is that we have anew politics of moral assault. When people disagree, they don't justdisagree; they accuse the other person of being basically evil.

MR. SABATO: And campaigns have become contests about moral virtueas much as about issues.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, but isn't the--I mean, we can all do pressbashing. I do it myself sometimes. But isn't character, the so-calledcharacter issue-- isn't that an important issue?

MR. SABATO: Of course it is, but there are lots of

MR. WATTENBERG: So why shouldn't they cover it?

MR. SABATO: But, Ben, there are lots of ways to measure character.Do you have to go into the bedroom to measure character? Or can you

MR. WATTENBERG: It depends on what's happening in the bedroom.(Laughter.)

MR. SABATO: That may be true, but I think a better way to judge itis

MR. WATTENBERG: And with whom, right. Yeah.

MR. SABATO: --by what men and women have done in public life.They've either shown courage or they haven't, for example.

JUDGE BORK: Well, in your excellent book, one of the rules yougive for when the private should become public is compulsive sexualbehavior.

MR. SABATO: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JUDGE BORK: So

MR. SABATO: You can step over the line.

JUDGE BORK: Yeah.

MR. SABATO: And I think compulsive sexual behavior does, indeed,step over that line. Because there are public consequences when youhave compulsive sexual behavior.

JUDGE BORK: It also indicates something about a person's mind setand character.

MR. SABATO: Sure.

MS. GARMENT: The problem is not that character doesn't matter.Character does matter. When we elect a president certainly, or asenator, we're not just electing a policymaker. We are also electinga role model, and there's no way around that. The problem is that wehaven't figured out very well how to measure it properly and makesure that our discussion is relevant to public policy.

MR. WATTENBERG: But don't we need I mean, I--let me play devil'sadvocate. Don't we need the press to keep that spotlight on thepublic officials? I mean, isn't that what they're there for?

JUDGE BORK: Yeah, I don't think we're talking about the rightthing. It's not when they go into a frenzy, because sometimes they'reon to a real story and they go after it all out. And that's fine.What's troublesome is when they begin to report rumors and gossip forwhich they have no confirmation.

MR. SABATO: And that happens even on a legitimate story. That'sthe problem. There are excesses even when the press is on to alegitimate story. They're publishing and airing rumors withoutsufficient proof. The standard of proof has dropped drastically.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me let's move on from this sort of analyticalmoment to go briefly to some personal experiences. And again, I wantto stress that Lani Guinier and Robert Bork were not accused of doinganything scandalous or even close to it or anything wrong.Nevertheless, they were caught up in a media firestorm as a result ofbitter policy differences. And let me just ask you, Lani, startingwith you, what's it like to be in the--in that kind of spotlight?

MS. GUINIER: Well, it's very uncomfortable, especially if youdon't have an opportunity to respond. In my case, I think mypolitical opponents successfully defined me, and I was underinstructions from the administration that nominated me not torespond. And, therefore, I had to watch this take place.

And in my case, I observed other people talking about someone whowas using my name, but it wasn't me. And yet I was not in a positionto intervene, and the reporters unfortunately were not curious enoughto find out whether, in fact, they were describing the real LaniGuinier or someone else's projected caricature of her.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Bork, speaking of caricatures, I wanted toread something here that came about early in the Bork affair by yourdear friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, and I'll read it quickly, but justto give a little flavor of how tough these things can get. SenatorKennedy said:

'Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forcedinto back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunchcounters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnightraids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writersand artists could be censored at the whim of government, and thedoors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millionsof citizens.'

That's what happened --what? The day you were nominated?

JUDGE BORK: Yeah, within 45 minutes of the nomination. Yeah. Well

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think he just wrote it out right then ormaybe they were ready? (Laughs.)

JUDGE BORK: No, I think they were ready in advance. But, you know,the interesting thing was that that was--there was not a line in thatthat had any resemblance to the truth, but no newspaper or televisionstation, to my knowledge, ever analyzed it to see what relationshipthat bore to the record. They just reported it. And that was prettymuch the way the whole thing went.

MR. WATTENBERG: What

JUDGE BORK: The accusations were reported. I, like Lani, was underorders not to talk back. And

MR. WATTENBERG: Although, of course, you did get

JUDGE BORK: A hearing, yeah. But that wasn't the kind of

MR. WATTENBERG: You got your day in court as we say.

JUDGE BORK: Yeah, but that wasn't the kind of thing we discussedat the hearing.

MR. WATTENBERG: Could you not have brought that up?

JUDGE BORK: I suppose I could have brought it up and started afight about that, yes.

MR. SABATO: But they both received very foolish advice, becauseone of the best lessons of Watergate is that you must get everythingyou possibly can out to refute a charge as quickly as possible. Andapparently your media advisors didn't know that.

MS. GARMENT: Well, but the media advisors weren't out to protectthe nominees. The media advisors are out to protect the White Houseand the president.

MR. SABATO: That's a good point.

MS. GARMENT: And somehow--I mean, sometimes that's done byseparation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob, just personally, what was it like?

JUDGE BORK: Well, it got to the point where I couldn't look at thepaper in the morning. I would just tell my wife,'Pass me the sportssection.' (Laughter.) And--but she then began to have the idea ofreading a Psalm every morning, and I liked it when she got to the 3rdPsalm, which is a plea to God to 'break the teeth of mine enemies.'(Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Did you ever feel that way about the press whenyou were going through this?

MS. GUINIER: It was a nightmare, but I continued to read thearticles. And as I said, even my own mother couldn't recognize mefrom them. And I subsequently spoke inadvertently to someone whoturned out to be a professor of psychology, and I had told him thatwhen I was in high school my nightmare--my anxiety dream had alwaysbeen that I would show up the first day of school and not have on myskirt and just have a slip and all the kids in high school would bepointing at me and laughing. And he said, well, after what I wentthrough, I must be cured now. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it possible in the strange way that fate worksout that these horror shows may have been in your own cases for thebetter? Let me just give you an example.

Today--we--any time there is a new Supreme Court vacancy, thefirst guy they want on the panel is Judge Bob Bork, this great,wonderful, learned jurist amongst people who had trashed you. Youhave written a book, a best-selling book, describing your legalviews. You have a lot of impact on the public debate.

Lani Guinier, that trial by fire that you went through and peoplesaid, 'Oh, she's a quota queen and it's terrible'

MS. GUINIER: And the czarina of czeparatism.

MR. WATTENBERG: The czarina--aah, well, now I

MS. GUINIER: I gave you an opening.

MR. WATTENBERG: You gave me an opening. I will tell you oneparagraph that I wrote about Lani Guinier which I thought--it was oneparagraph in a long story, and Lani has been quoting it: the czarinaof separatism. The whole quote--I rather like it--said:

'Bill Clinton should quietly ask Professor Lani Guinier, alias thequota queen, the princess of proportionalism, the duchess ofdiversity, the vicar of victimization, the czarina of separatism, towithdraw her name from Senate confirmation as chief of the CivilRights Division.'

What was my question? I do not-- how'd this come up?

MS. GUINIER: You were trying to tell me that I was better off

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah

MS. GUINIER: --having heard you read that to

MR. WATTENBERG: Right. Okay, now

MS. GUINIER: --a national audience

MR. WATTENBERG: Right, but

MS. GUINIER: --for a second time. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. But now we see you on the front coverof The New York Times Magazine. You have published a book which is, Igather, doing very well. There was a big article in the paper theother-- was it The New York Times--the other day that said,'Hmmm,Lani Guinier's ideas about cumulative voting, maybe those were prettygood ideas.' Are you getting more exposure and more influence foryour ideas than you ever would have gotten at the one, two, three,fourth level of the Justice Department?

MS. GUINIER: I don't think you can calculate it that way.Certainly one of the messages of both my experience and that of JudgeBork is that, once the media has martyred you, then they are preparedto give you a hearing. And in that sense, if you take advantage ofthe opportunity to be heard, you have a platform. But if Judge Borkhad been on the Supreme Court or if I had been given a hearing andbeen confirmed, then you are in a position not only to talk aboutsome of these ideas but to do something about them. And I think thatwe miss the ability of government officials not only to talk aboutideas but actually to talk about them in a context in which there areresources behind them to implement those ideas if just trivialize theexperience and say, 'Oh, well, now you're a celebrity and you cantalk whenever you want.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but I'm not talking about celebrity status.I am talking about your ability to put forth the serious ideas youwant to put forth. And as we all know, our government is driven bywhat's in the newspapers and what's on television. And when theysee-- when they're a headline saying,'You know, Lani

Guinier's ideas, those happen to be pretty good'; doesn't thatalso give you a certain form of influence

MS. GUINIER: Yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: ---and power?

MS. GUINIER: Yes. And in some ways what you're describing is theChinese character for crisis, which is a combination of danger andopportunity. And you're saying,'Well, look at the opportunity.' And Idon't deny that it creates an opportunity and that those of us whoare in a position to take advantage of it are, in fact, veryfortunate.

MR. WATTENBERG: Until very recently, it was sort of an article offaith in the conservative and in the neo conservative community thatthis was all a plot by liberals against conservatives. Now we havesomething called Whitewater which we will take about in a minute. Isit is this a bipartisan phenomenon, or are liberals more areconservatives more likely to get hit than liberals?

MS. GARMENT: For some time during the 1980s, it was a phenomenonof liberals attacking conservatives, partly because conservativeswere in power in the executive branch. But during the course of the1980s, more and more Democrats started to get involved.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jim Wright was a big one.

MS. GARMENT: That's right. Now, on Whitewater, there are manyconservatives who believe that the press has been soft on Clinton,that the stop-and-go nature of the coverage shows a kind ofambivalence that wouldn't have been there had it been a conservativepresident. But I don't think it's possible to say that the press hasjust lain down in front of him. There has been a lot of coverage.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is this phenomenon going to keep good people fromrunning for office?

MR. SABATO: I absolutely believe that that's the case. It'simpossible to prove, but just consider it from the point of logic. Itseems to me that those with the most to lose, those who spent theirwhole lives making their friends and family proud of them, achievinga lot in the community they now recognize that they can have it allthrown away for them with a single headline one morning's newspaper,one evening news broadcast. Why are they going to run?

All right. Let's talk for a minute now about this Whitewatersituation, because we are again right smack in the midst of a mediafirestorm. The Clinton people say it's all trivial, nothing's beenproved, there is no charge. On the other hand, when you go throughthe list of some of the things that are at least being talked about,you end up with obstruction of justice, swindle, sexual harassment,cover up, bribery, lying, illegal commodity trading, illegal campaignfinancing, and massive philandering. That's just a list that I andI'm not saying any of that or all of that is true.

Is the press now overreacting to that story, Larry?

MR. SABATO: I think they're overreacting to the Whitewater part ofit, the financial dealings part of it. And why is that true? Theywent to Whitewater as a way to avoid 'Troopergate.'; To get back toJudge Bork's comment, I think 'Troopergate'; is the tip of aniceberg, and there is massive and compulsive sexual activity involvedin Clinton's past that probably should have been discussed during thecampaign and was not. The press doesn't want to deal with that afterGennifer Flowers. But to avoid looking as though they were in thetank for Clinton they diverted to Whitewater.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, you used the word 'compulsive.' You are aprofessor, and you did not use that word by accident, did you?

MR. SABATO: No. I as you can imagine, in investigating thoseaspects of it for my book, I came across various trails of this, thatand the other myself. So I feel comfortable in using that adjective.

MS. GUINIER: Well, could I ask a question? Why do you think thepress is disinterested in that particular story if one of the claimsis that the press goes after what is most titillating and what ismost sensational?

MR. SABATO: Normally they do, but they were burned badly duringthe Gennifer Flowers affair. They really got it in the neck duringthe Gennifer Flowers affair.

MS. GUINIER: From?

MR. SABATO: From, I think, people generally who wanted to focus onbroader issues like the economy. Certainly from the Clinton people.And, of course, they have to deal with the Clinton administration.And many of those same campaign aides are now in senior White Housepositions. So there are a lot of factors at work here.

JUDGE BORK: Well, there's another factor at work, and that is theNew Republic writer said that one reason they gave Clinton a break onthe sex stories is they like him as a they like his policies and theydon't want to bring him down.

MR. SABATO: That's part of it.

MS. GARMENT: Besides

MS. GUINIER: But then why are they going after Whitewater?

MS. GARMENT: Because there it is. Say you don't want to deal with'Troopergate,'; right? Because it's messy and you don't know how youfeel about adultery anyway. There, shimmering on the horizon, isWhitewater, a clean scandal, a nice scandal, a scandal fit for afamily newspaper.

JUDGE BORK: A Pulitzer Prize scandal.

MS. GARMENT: Yes. It's unbeatable.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does all of this then, I mean, in terms of the wayit affects Bill and Hillary Clinton, is this in toto a resurfacing ofthe character issue? Is that what the sum and substance of this wholeargument is about?

MR. SABATO: It's a resurfacing, but you have to ask yourself why.And the reason why is because the character issue was never resolvedduring the campaign of '92. The American people wanted to get rid ofGeorge Bush. At first they turned to Perot and thought that he wouldbe the alternative. Then they found out he was the politicalequivalent of a drive-by shooting, and they were left with BillClinton. He was the only choice. That was it. And at a certain pointthe American people told the press, or maybe the press toldthemselves, no more information about Bill Clinton because he's theonly choice left and, unless we want mass suicides, we need to keepit here. So the questions were unresolved, and they're going to doghim throughout his presidency.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you're saying that the press made a partisanjudgment that they did not like Bush or Perot and they purposely laidoff an existing story?

MR. SABATO: No, I believe the American people made that judgmentand the press picked up on it. I think it was the American peopleevery bit as much, if not more so than the press, who rejected GeorgeBush and decided Clinton was the only real alternative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Lani, do you think the Clintons are being treatedfairly by the press in this episode?

MS. GUINIER: Well, I was very persuaded by the piece in The WallStreet Journal by Arthur Schlesinger suggesting that the focus onbusiness deals 15 years ago, which predated the presidency, is amisdirection of the resources of the press, that that's somethingthat should be the subject of an election campaign, not the subjectof a governing question. But on the other hand, I was also persuadedby Larry's point that, if there is a subtext, if there is a concern,a lingering concern that is unresolved, then the press is going tocontinue to look for opportunities to develop that subtext.

MR. WATTENBERG: I admit

JUDGE BORK: Well, there are two things that should be said aboutthe Whitewater. It's true that it was 10, 15 years ago, but it's alsotrue that it displays characteristics that they denounced in theiropponents, the decade of greed.

MR. WATTENBERG: And it involves things like

JUDGE BORK: Hypocrisy.

MR. WATTENBERG: they said and did even in the White House

JUDGE BORK: The second part is they're giving a wonderfulimpression of a cover up. If it isn't a cover-up, they sure know howto impersonate one.

MS. GUINIER: One of my concerns, and this is what makes meempathetic with Schlesinger's criticism, I think we need to have afocus on the issues. If the issue is character let's talk aboutcharacter. If the issue is health policy, let's talk about thatrather than using these sensational stories to personalize policydisagreements and do in a way what a Canadian journalist told me,which is make America a marketplace for emotions rather than amarketplace of ideas.

MR. WATTENBERG: Can the American people -- to use an old phrase --walk and chew gum at the same time? Can we deal with, whether youagree with him or not -- major issues Bill Clinton has put on theagenda and at the same time deal with a big-time firestorm scandal?

MR. SABATO: It's tough, although we're starting to do it. But whatcomes between public policy like health care and the character issuesthat are being discussed is a word-- trust -- and you have to havetrust in you leaders that they're telling you the truth about policy,and that goes to character, and that's why I think we still have allthese unresolved questions about the Clintons. And until we resolvethem, we're not going to be able to fully focus on their policyproposals.

MS. GUINIER: The unresolved question is what?

MR. SABATO: The unresolved question is: Can we trust Bill Clintonand is he a good and moral leader?

MR. WATTENBERG: Well on that note, thank you Professors LaniGuinier, Sabato, Dr. Garment, Judge Bork, and thank you for joiningus. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg. END



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