'Who Won the Week?' Nobody

JAY ROSEN

June 13, 1993|By JAY ROSEN

The withdrawal of another White House nomination, the "Travelgate" mess, the pricy haircut -- these themes are recycled to death and the appropriate conclusion drawn: Bill Clinton is a loser who does not understand how the Washington game is played. The Washington Post asks, ominously, "Another Failed Presidency?"

Every Friday night, when John McLaughlin or Jim Lehrer asks "Who won the week?" the media put forward their weird and disabling political vision. Politics turns into a game that is won by appearing in the media as a winner. No "facts" exist except those produced by the journalist's angle of vision.

To ask "who won the week" is a political act, one that is rarely acknowledged. The question sets a rhythm to politics that permits the media to play timekeeper, umpire and, finally, judge. It is a question that would not occur to an ordinary citizen, but it remains a favorite of pundits and reporters because it appears to place the press on the outside of a process -- the shaping of perceptions -- that is profoundly affected by what the press itself does.

Thus Margaret Carlson of Time acknowledged that Mr. Clinton's haircut flap was a "trivial event." But she added that it "resonated because it served as an emblem of Clinton's troubles." Resonated with whom? An emblem for whom? The best answer is "the people in the media."

Serious journalists know that politics, while it can be enjoyed for its own sake, is fundamentally about choices and values and the direction a society takes -- not who's up and who's down. They are capable of seeing "statecraft as soulcraft," as George Will did in a book of that title. But in their day-to-day view of the scene, they have accumulated a huge stake in the denial of meaning, the hollowing out of politics into a game of perceptions, to be played by the media itself.

By now, even the denizens of the White House think that they have achieved something by "winning the week." They fret when the week, according to the pundits, has been lost.

The vacuum of meaning at the heart of Washington's political culture has become a social ill in its own right. It is partly responsible for the dismal repute in which the federal government and the national media are held.

There is a professional culture in journalism that simply refuses to change, despite the abundant evidence pointing to its own demise. Journalists have dwelt for so long in a realm of moral luxury that they cannot see how expensive their habits have become. They believe that they can inflate a haircut into a political crisis and the costs will be borne by the White House alone. They think that their willingness to savage George Bush justifies -- even demands -- an eagerness to demolish his successor.

They are pathetically mistaken. In fact, it is their own influence, their own status, the meaning of what they themselves do that evaporates when Americans are led to conclude that yet another president is a bumbling clown, that government is a hopeless mess, that politics repays no serious effort to attend to it. Mindlessly, the press contributes to these perceptions, then stands back to survey the damage as if it were some naturally occurring disaster.

Under these conditions, serious journalism itself becomes a joke, but the "serious" press pays little mind. Here and there a damaging admission is made, as when Anthony Lewis of the New York Times writes, "The press is ravenous, ready to see scandal in a speck of dust." But no routines are altered, no reforms proposed.

After all, the art of developing a productive political vision is not part of the journalist's training or self-image. It conflicts with a professional culture that stresses "objectivity" and the pursuit of scandal over acts of imagination. So when journalism is done badly -- when its vision is cramped, insidious or inadequate to the times -- the news media tend to escape responsibility.

"What does it mean to be a journalist?" Hillary Rodham Clinton dared to ask in her speech in Austin, Tex., last month. Sadly, no one in the media took the question seriously. Until that changes, every week will be a losing week in the blinkered, mirrored, morose world of Washington journalism.

Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. This commentary, first published in the Los Angeles Times, is adapted from an essay in next month's Tikkun magazine.

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