Narcissus Enters the Press Pool

Article excerpt

Fact: Everything interesting that has been written about Bill Clinton this decade, pro and con, has been about his personality. That is the nature of 1990s journalism.

The rush to therapeutic, personality-based reporting kicked into high gear eight years ago at the hearings on Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. Feminist bleatings provided the script for a new sort of media drama, one emphasizing private psychic travails over public deeds.

The psycho-battle pitted Anita Hill ("the poised daughter of so many generations of black women who have been burned carrying torches into the battle for principle," gushed Time editor Nancy Gibbs) against Clarence Thomas (put "a little flour on his face, you'd think you had David Duke talking." sneered pundit Carl Rowan). The ratings-fest that followed convinced the media that in a world without the kind of hard news that the Cold War used to provide, talking endlessly about peoples' private lives could be their best new way to make a living.

This is not to say that private lives aren't sometimes worthy of investigation and understanding. But '90s-style press coverage has created two serious problems: 1) The press has often become infatuated with documenting trivial aspects of personality rather than focusing on fundamentals of character. (Do we really need to know so much about our President's taste in junk food?) 2) More seriously, arguments over facts are increasingly fought through personal appeals that call into question the motives of those using the facts. (Way back in the 1930s Hannah Arendt exposed this as a favorite left-wing trick.)

The best of the new breed of journalists have been rewarded handsomely for their dives into the quicksand of motivation and personality. Maureen Dowd was given a New York Times column for brilliantly, and sometimes not so brilliantly, mocking public figures (calling Elizabeth Dole, for example, a "throwback to the days of unassailable girdles and unmussable hairdos"). Beneath its snarky wrapping, the substance of Dowd's column is mostly very conventional wisdom.

Similarly, Vanity Fair's Gail Sheehy has created a cottage industry around her gift for slumber-party psychobabble, on display most recently in her new Hillary book. As Judith Shulevitz of Slate observes, "Sheehy is a therapist to the stars, not a political reporter. …