History Potomac Style

Article excerpt

Though a pity, it is wonderfully appropriate that the American journalistic culture is almost never looked into except by journalists, for narcissism is its salient characteristic. Indeed, for anyone without the journalist's penchant for self-congratulation, the whole subject is faintly disgusting. Partly this is because of the profession's parasitic nature. Journalists are revolting the way leeches or tapeworms or lawyers are revolting. But some parasites can be of benefit to their host organisms, and journalists would have to be said to fall into this category. So long as they realize that their place is with garbage collectors and sewer workers, there is no harm in them. In some parts of the world, they still do realize it. I remember once talking to a British journalist about his paper's coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial, which he expected to stand out from the pack by arguing that the verdict was entirely correct. When I expressed my astonishment, he replied: "What can I say? We're the scum of the earth."

But American journalists don't believe that. On the contrary, they believe that they are the cream of the earth, if not god-like emissaries from some supermundane Absoluteville, graciously condescending in their ineffable glibness to explain to lesser folk, engaged in their petty, earth-bound and "partisan" quarrels, how easily they might have solved all their problems if only they had had the good fortune to be born journalists. It is the smelly arrogance and smugness of this habit of mind which make the journalistic culture truly repugnant to decent people and, as I tried to argue in our last number, one reason for believing that the opinion polls' surprising suggestion that the people cannot be dissuaded from liking Bill Clinton may instead be evidence that they cannot be dissuaded from disliking the media.

We must leave it to others to decide how far the public may be justified in regarding the attack on our president and, indeed, our American system of constitutional government, as the fault of the media. Certainly the appearance of the pornographer Larry Flynt in a position of considerable prominence among those media during the last month cannot have done much to endear the journalistic profession to the people--though journalists' entirely predictable, and by now quite comic, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at being compelled to keep company with the likes of Mr. Flynt can be relied upon to keep intact the journalists' own obliviousness to their unpopularity. In fact, it is central to an understanding of their coverage of the Clinton scandals that they believe on the evidence of those misleading polls that they are, perhaps for the first time since the storied days of Watergate, on the same side as the public will.

In those days, so the mythology has it, the people wanted to get rid of the president they had so recently and overwhelmingly elected, and the media did all it could to give the people what they wanted. Now, the people are supposed to want with at least equal fervor to keep their government's chief executive firmly in his place and to punish with electoral annihilation any Republican foolhardy enough to vote for impeachment-or, impeachment having been inexplicably voted for, for conviction. Once again, as it did a quarter century ago, the people's faithful servants in the media are prepared to rise to the occasion and help give them what they want. Thus the fabled White House "spin machine" has scarcely needed to turn itself on in order to set the press a-spinning its way, crying out against "the politics of personal destruction" (strange that these voices were not heard when the object of such destruction was Newt Gingrich or Clarence Thomas or John Tower or Robert Bork) and in favor of "bipartisanship."

Among many amusing manifestations of this new excuse for media smugness, I rank the outpouring of adulation for the Senate's 100-0 vote on the rules for the impeachment trial near the top for entertainment value. …