The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession
Gitlin, Todd, The Washington Monthly
How the press made a scandal of itself
To derail his presidency, a thrill-seeking president had to come into the sights of a prosecutor with virtually unbridled powers, married to an omnivorous press. How did the news business, also known (when it is giving itself awards) as the profession of journalism, turn into a nonstop strip-search? How to account for the sheer volume of the scandal coverage, and the gloating tone of much of it, the gleeful obsession, the overkill and wallowing that seized hold of journalism in these United States?
Start with the Sunday morning barking heads, the high church that certifies each week what the political class is and ought to be talking about, issuing self-fulfilling prophecies for inside dopesters. Consider especially ABC's "This Week," where Cokie Roberts declared, on Jan. 25,1998, with the Lewinsky story four days old, "There's only one real question that's being asked in Washington this week, and that is, can President Clinton survive?" Along the Potomac, among the knowing, it was thunderously clear what was real--and it was not the fate of women without childcare, or children without doctors.
One function of the Sunday shows is to make certain notions thinkable. Between his Sunday punditry and nightly reports, no one bulldogs America's political conversation more than ABC's Sam Donaldson. Donaldson's repute rests not on his reporting, not on his preparation, but on his leather lungs, his selective bullying and his bellow. He jeers the big cheese in charge, whoever it is, because ideology matters less than attitude. On "This Week," the emphatic Donaldson makes George Will look thoughtful, the studious boy who does his homework as opposed to the loudmouth pumped up on attitude. Here was Donaldson on Jan. 25: "If he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. This isn't going to drag out. We're not going to be here three months from now talking about this."
Of course more than nine months later Donaldson, Roberts, Will & Co. were still talking about "this." But Donaldson, Roberts, Will, Tim Russert and the rest matter not because of their acumen, let alone their accuracy, but because powerful people think that what they say matters--because official Washington and its eavesdroppers watch the Sunday shows in order to know what they had better take into account as they plot their own moves. Like prosecutors talking about "this case" as if they were observers from the far reaches of outer space, journalists like to talk as though "this story" had a life of its own, as if it landed and stayed on front pages and Sunday morning shows by itself. Already, on Jan. 25, Donaldson was declaring, "I'm amazed at the speed with which this story is going." Of course it all depends what the meaning of "this story" is. On Jan. 21, the day the Monica story broke, it was Donaldson--not "this story"--who, at the White House press briefing, asked whether Clinton would cooperate with an impeachment inquiry.
The ardor of the barking heads even makes straight news people squeamish at times. Chris Vlasto, an ABC News producer who, as we shall see, cannot be accused of excessive tenderness toward the White House, told me: "The night Jackie [Judd] and I broke the story, Jan. 21, impeachment never crossed our minds. It only came up that Sunday on `This Week.' I think it's unfair that the talking heads on MSNBC, on our own network and the rest, have stoked the flames."
The Rush Back from Havana
The thrill of a breaking story, any breaking story, is easy to understand, and so is the dynamic that keeps CNN and MSNBC, the 24-hour news channels, along with the tabloids, scraping the bottoms of all accessible barrels for cigar butts. The word of words is competition, and not only for bottom-line purposes. News organizations live for the frenzy of getting "there" first, getting "the story," getting the "get," getting the Big Creep. Recall that on Jan. 21, all three network anchors were in Havana to cover the Pope's visit--all in a position, American news media being what they are, to certify to the American public that Cuba exists and that what happens there might be newsworthy. All three promptly picked themselves up and flew back to Washington to cover (or rather, witness the wreckage from) Hurricane Monica. Dan Rather seems to have been most reluctant to go, later telling Jeff Greenfield on CNN: "If you want to stay in the anchoring business, you have two choices. You can get back to Washington and cover this big breaking story, or you ask for asylum in Cuba ... If one [anchor] had made the decision to stay, one of the three over-the-air national anchor people, I think he'd have gotten killed in the press. He'd have gotten killed by his bosses internally. I just don't think it was practical to say no." In March, receiving a career excellence …
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Publication information: Article title: The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession. Contributors: Gitlin, Todd - Author. Magazine title: The Washington Monthly. Volume: 30. Issue: 12 Publication date: December 1998. Page number: 13. © 2009 Washington Monthly Company. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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