Interview with Ellen Goodman
Interviewed July 1996
FLN: I want to start with asking you about your own experiences with television talk shows. Now you've written about and spoken about this before....Tell me, from your end, what that experience is like.
EG: Whenever you're called to do a program like "Nightline" or really any of these shows, its always a very nice young eager booker who calls up and usually her first comment is -- we're doing a show on this subject, we'd like to know whether you have an opinion on this or what your thinking is about it. I have discovered over many years that if it's a show that is on very early in the morning or late at night, the easiest way to get out of doing it is to say "Well I have mixed feelings about this." And you can hear the phone go down, because these shows don't do mixed feelings. What they do is they take ambivalence, they divide it out and one person represents one side of the issue and one person represents the other side of the issue. But you never get what it is that people experience, which is both sides inside their own gut, so that the viewers watching have this impression that everything is polarized. Where they actually experience life as complex and two-handed or eight-handed if you want to go with the octopus.
ST: How does that...or does it impact your writing a syndicated column at the Boston Globe? You're supposed to have and do have opinions that you express, sometimes strongly. Does the culture of television punditry and these kinds of shows where its all black or its all white, have an impact on you?
EG: I feel like its something to push against, because I've always felt that I wanted to write as people experience life. A lot of the things that people experience are mixed feelings. Now having said that, I think its your job as a columnist to go through those feelings and come down somewhere. You don't want to just say, well we all have mixed feelings about this... this situation bears watching.... that is kind of an editorial cop-out. But you want to tip your hat to the complexities of an issue and work your way through it. It's always been my impression that if you do express both sides of an issue, well people will go with you. They'll follow you through to the end of the argument. Some may not come down on the same place, but over the course of a long time -- and I've been syndicated for 20 years -- they will have some respect for what you've done and they'll follow you through and read it. I mean, it seems to me, that if you follow a kind of "drive-by" columnist strategy, you basically are doing quick hits. There's a kind of popularity to that in the short run, but it wears thin and gets old fast.
S T: You have written and spoken about the old feminist idea that the personal is the political. You once said, "be careful of what you wish for it might come true." Is that what we're living with?
EG: Well, no. When I was a young journalist, I started writing just about the time that women's movement slogan came into effect, which did say the personal is political. And that meant a lot of things. It meant that who chooses the diapers at home has something to do with a meaningful power relationship between men and women. It meant that if we only talk about breast cancer and abortion as private issues, they would never be on the public agenda, but it also meant something about public life, and it meant something about covering our political leaders. It meant knowing something about the leader's personal life would tell something about where he or she was leading you. That is to say, who he was in private, who she was in private, said something about how he or she would be in public life. So, in effect, I think women in my business were very influential in breaking the gentlemen's agreement of the old-boy network in Washington that they would keep certain parts of a politician's private life from "the little women." The "little women" being the public.
Now, we also were to a certain extent responsible for the pendulum swinging too far. And for the last several elections, certainly since Gary Hart committed character suicide in public there has been a great emphasis on private life, and we have been hard pressed to find the line between what is a "character investigation of a person's personal life" and what is gossip, what is invasion of privacy and what has some room for public life. Other times we've gone over to the gossip and to small stuff, to Clinton's underwear. It hasn't really helped us in thinking about how they would be as political leaders.
ST: You've mentioned that Doris Kearns Goodwin in her latest book tells us more than we ever knew about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, their relationship, all the complicated relationships that might be scandalous today. Certainly John Kennedy's sex life, even Dwight Eisenhower we now know had a mistress during the Second World War.
EG: We don't actually know that... We know he had an affectionate relationship with his driver.
ST: All right, I stand corrected And as you say, you know, maybe the watershed moment here was when Gary Hart was asked about adultery by Paul Taylor, who now has some mixed feelings about having asked that question and has quit being a journalist. You sort of turned this back around and said, yes, the personal is political. But there was another side to the equation, that the political is also personal. Is there any going back to this era when we didn't say that Franklin Roosevelt couldn't walk?
EG: No there's no going back to the era when we stood and made a circle around President Roosevelt so that nobody would see him or photograph him getting out of the wheelchair. And that's television. It's the up close and personal camera. I mean you see everything, and there's absolutely no way of retreating to that. I think there are some self-imposed limits. For example, we in the press have declared Chelsea Clinton off-limits. That's not a bad model...we're not going to invade the privacy of a fifteen or sixteen year old girl. I think in general there's been a consensus. On the other hand, even in the up close and personal era, we missed the story of Ronald Reagan's health. We now know that he must have had early Alzheimers in the White House. So for all the reporting about gossip, we didn't report that, and I don't know how we didn't. We are just wildly uncomfortable reporting that story even now. So I think that there are some things that we are just uncomfortable with.
ST: With all the reporting on the Clinton "scandals," he has survived it, unlike Gary Hart. Why do you think that is so?
EG: Well life is complicated, and I think that Gary Hart really did commit character suicide...he invited the press to follow him...he denied everything. We were quite comfortable with our role in Gary Hart's debacle. Then comes the Gennifer Flowers story, and in fact it was a contextually different story. Here was a man who admitted causing pain in his marriage. Here was a man whose wife was a partner, not a victim. There was certainly some kind of statute of limitations to that infidelity. And, in fact, I think the public was able to put the "A" back into the alphabet soup of character. In fact, people appear to accept the complexity of human life and went on to elect Bill Clinton.
ST: There's been a lot of criticism of the press lately. We're very unpopular if you believe polls that measure public attitudes about the press. And there's also been a wave of self-criticism -- Jim Fallows and Howard Kurtz hav both written books. One of the standard criticisms, especially from conservatives, but not just, is that the elite media has a profound liberal bias. What do you make of that charge?
EG: I consider my own views to be rather main-stream. I am considered certainly left of the far right by my readers. I think the labels have so little meaning at this point in history that we're stuck talking about something that's in fact kind of archaic. Many of us are economic conservatives and social liberals...even the political parties have this mish-mash of politics. I would consider most journalists to be open-minded. Its almost a professional qualification. So to a certain degree that may be socially liberal, if we can use archaic terms. And we are prejudiced in favor of news, something new. So we're often purveying something out of the mainstream... we're often, you know, describing that. But, I also think you can make a case that, as the media has become less poor and better educated, that they maybe reflect less of a muckraking class and are maybe more conservative than the previous generation.
ST: Well that's interesting, just to turn around, we just did an interview with Michael Kelly, who is a political writer with the New Yorker, and is about to become editor of the New Republic. And he described his father as a blue collar newspaper reporter in Washington for a now defunct newspaper. And he is sad that we've left the era of the blue-collar reporter who might have not gone to college, in fact, usually didn't go to college, but knew a lot, was savvy, grew up on the street -- a working class street. Now if you look around the newsroom of the New York Times, certainly the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post, you basically have an all college educated, very well paid staff of people who, he charges are out of touch with the country. Does that resonate with you or not?
EG: I'd throw one other piece in. When I first came to work at this paper, the Boston Globe, which is 28 years ago, most of the reporters were bom and bred in Boston, and so then it was rather parochial. Over the next generation of reporters, more and more came from elsewhere and fewer and fewer remember how Ward 21 voted in 1954, so they were less connected to the community. By the way, I think this is less true of the Boston Globe, which is still a pretty rooted paper. If you look across the country, reporters who once became reporters in their home town paper and stayed there, have become kind of like television reporters -- they move from one market to another market up the scale. They are less connected to the community because of their own mobility. This may also be true of Americans in general. We may just be reflecting what is going on America. But I think that the risk of being out of touch may be less one of class than one of roots. So, you know, the old image of the reporter in the bar and on the beat with sources on the street, that's one image that may be past and gone. Reporters are now specialists. They can trnsmit what's going on in a fast-changing high tech world, and that is the sort of thing that reporters
of a previous generation weren't able to do nearly as well.ST: It seems like books are a big part of the campaign season -- we've got the ex-FBI agents bookUnlimited Access, Partners in Power by Roger Morris and there's the Woodward book The Choice. There seem to be a lot of books out early in this campaign and many of them harshly critical of the Clintons. What do you make of this?
EG: The other thing that strikes me about it is the time frame, as it becomes shorter and shorter, people's attention time frame has become shorter too. The publisher's are reacting to that now, and they have decided the market for a post-campaign book is obviously very small. People don't care about something after it has happened. What strikes me is that it is in itself a kind of reflection of the speeding up of everything. And that is having a tremendous effect on the business. Everything is getting faster and faster. The competition between various media.... It's now down to megabytes, you know. What I regret about the speeding up of things, is that I do think that speed trumps insight. And that is a real problem in the business, even in the thoughtful, reflective end of the business which is ostensibly my end of it. The capacity to have a thoughtful reflection on something while its happening is a ludicrous concept. But that's how it is, and it's far worse on television, if I may say so. The fact that people are supposed to give you analysis as something is going on, it's just a laughable concept. And yet that's the mainstay of the television talk shows, you know, all the roundtable discussions.
ST: A lot of money-making opportunities have opened up to regulars on these shows. There's been a lot of criticism of this lately. Its been called buckracking. Suddenly lecture fees go up. People are earning twenty or thirty thousand dollars or more. Ted Koppel said he stopped doing these when his fee reached fifty thousand dollars for a single speech. There are a lot of people who do this. What do you think about that?
EG: My sense of what's a real problem is the instant analysis. ...You end up becoming thoughtless. People who write very well and with some sensitivity, suddenly they're on one of these programs and they are doing knee jerk commentary on subjects about which they know very little and would never write about. You ought to have some sense of humility that you actually cannot know enough to have a reasonable opinion on Bosnian policy on Monday, on healthcare reform on Tuesday, on welfare on Wednesday, and on Mexican monetary policy on Thursday. It's ludicrous.
ST: Do you believe the polls that say the public thinks we're terrible?
EG: Sure. I also think that people tend to vent about a broad subject. People hate public schools in general, but tend to think their public school is doing a pretty good job. I think there's that duality in terms of the press, and the further away from your home town the press is, the more critical you may be. Also, people hate to want to know what they want to know and that becomes a little bit of "blame the messenger."
ST: If you read Jim Fallows, you think there's a crisis in the industry. Do you think that the media really has something to worry about in the way that we cover politics today?
EG: If you look at what's seriously going on in the country, and you see the kinds of grand crises, and then you turn to the newspaper to see what's in it everyday -- the newspaper's better -- and then you turn to television and you see what's in it everyday, and then you turn to the talk-shows, you're going to get 360 degrees here. You turn to the talk-shows, you turn to talk-radio and you turn to the tabloids, and this whole vast array under the title, "media." You start getting further and further away from what we should be really worrying about. All of these media will cover the state of children in America, at some point or other, but I think it's very hard to stay on the big stories and not to get distracted by the internal reports of what somebody's campaign political ads are saying to the adverse impact of somebody else. I think if you will look back at the end of this campaign, you'll see that we all covered the big stories at least once, but that the running scenes, again, were the little stuff.
ST: We did a program about Rush Limbaugh, and there's a lot of talk among the conservatives of the new media doing an end run around the old media which, they argue has a liberal bias. You set up an interesting distinction between talk-radio shows as male and political ....and TV talk-shows as female and personal. Do you want to describe that for me?
EG: Sure.. One of the ideas behind the idea of the "personal is political" is that you break down the separation not just between the personal and political, but to a certain extent, you break it down between male and female views, you know. And now we have this whole other real gender gap in the media. And I would describe that gender gap as talk radio, which is almost exclusively by and for men ....the audience is the angry white-man... and the callers are largely male. Rush Limbaugh, and programs like that, was in fact a kind of white-male consciousness raising group in the 94 election. That whole area of the media seems to be about politics. So again, you have men talking politics with men.
Then you have this newish media of talk-television, where many of the talk-television hosts are women and most of the audience is female, and the subject is, guess what, personal life. The male talk-radio is dysfunctional politics and the female talk-television is dysfunctional persoanl life. But again, men are talking about public life, and women are talking about private life, and there is a separate reality as there is everywhere.
ST: What do make of the very negative press coverage of Hillary Clinton?
EG: Oh, I don't think there's any doubt that a large percentage of it is just an attack on the "uppity woman." I've never seen anything like this. Now you can criticize many things about her, but the level of vitriol is just out of all proportion. In some way, she has just become a kind of stand--in for uppity women.You could make the case that Eleanor Roosevelt was so far ahead of the times, that she was considered eccentric. She wasn't really frightening, I suppose. Whereas Hillary Clinton is right at the cusp of her times. She is a woman of her times. And so she becomes a more frightening figure. She's become a magnet for tremendous amounts of hostility. She's also become a kind of magnet from a lot of women who get what's going on. And, I must say, also, there's something really pathetic in 1996, to see coverage of Hillary and Liddy Dole and to see this combination of two powerful women in the country, running for "first lady." I mean, its so pathetic that there isn't some woman running for president, and that there's all this focus on this non-job called First Lady.