N.Y. Post deserves more than to be scandal sheet ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

March 22, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- A lot of romanticism is being spread around over the latest circus involving the New York Post, wherein a real-estate operator with no interest in journalism grabbed the tabloid in bankruptcy court and fired a large chunk of the editorial staff, whereupon the deposed staffers in effect seized the paper.

It is, to be sure, a helluva story made all the juicier by the rebellious staff turning out a first issue lambasting the new prospective owner from Page One to the want ads. Even the lofty New York Times, which is to the New York Post what caviar is to a hot dog, has waxed positively poetic about the development, quoting Dylan Thomas in commending the rebels for their determination to "rage, rage, against the dying of the light."

The insurgents certainly deserve credit for trying in their spectacularly brash way to save what is America's oldest daily newspaper still in circulation. At the same time, in all the romanticizing it should not be forgotten that under a series of owners over the last two decades, the Post has gone from being one of the more respectable journalistic voices on the political left to a full-blown scandal and gossip sheet not far removed from the supermarket tabloids that have in recent years infected American journalism.

In fact, it was the decision of the New York Post about a year ago to pick up the supermarket tabloid story of an old lawsuit by a disgruntled former Arkansas state employee that injected the womanizing charges against then-Gov. Bill Clinton into the veins of mainstream journalism. The suit alleged that the employee, Larry Nichols, had lost his job because he knew about the misuse of state funds by Clinton for dalliances with local women, including one named Gennifer Flowers.

The story had long been discredited by Arkansas news organizations that had no love for Clinton, and indeed Nichols subsequently dropped the suit and apologized to Clinton, saying his allegations were unfounded. but when the New York Post picked up the story from the Star, a leading supermarket tabloid, the horse was out of the barn.

A more expansive Star story featuring a lurid interview with Flowers also was repackaged for readers in the Post, and within a news cycle other newspapers and television networks that a few years earlier would not have touched the yarn with asbestos mittens were giving it Page-One treatment. When Clinton was directly confronted with it, his dismissal of the story as "old news" from a woman who earlier had denied any relationship with him only kept the story in prominent display (except in the New York Times, which ran a brief account well inside its pages).

Although an ABC News producer was the first to interview Clinton about the Flowers story, his network decided not to mention it on its evening news show, but then made it the subject of its widely viewed "Nightline" program later the same night, in the guise of raising the question of the journalistic ethics of reporting such a story. Talk about ethics.

Ever since this episode, reporters and editors in so-called mainstream journalism have discussed and debated the validity and wisdom of taking a supermarket tabloid story and running with it, the way first the New York Post and then most of the rest of the news business did, elevating it to the level of a critical issue in a presidential campaign.

In the end, voters indicated that they felt the country faced much more serious problems that affected their lives in a personal way, and if any reputation was tarnished it was not so much Clinton's, or the untarnishable gossip tabloids, as the rest of journalism that let the scandal sheets lead it down the muddy path it followed.

So it should not be forgotten that the product the Post rebels are trying to save is a far cry from what the effort deserves.

Nevertheless, the bottom-line issue is not what kind of newspaper the Post has become, but the preservation of a historic voice of the free press in a business that is losing too many voices.

It can be hoped that if the newspaper survives, presumably under new ownership, the fight for it will inspire its editors to bring it back to its old, much more respectable ways.

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