. . . Journalism as blood sport

Jonathan Alter

August 17, 1993|By Jonathan Alter

SACKCLOTH and ashes don't fit comfortably on the Washington pundit class. After the release of Vincent Foster's note last week blaming the press for some of his unhappiness, there was a moment of self-examination.

But only a moment. Then came the rationalizations. After all, Lani Guinier, Clarence Thomas and lots of others got it much worse than Mr. Foster, who was untouched outside the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

And Mr. Foster was obviously a deeply troubled man whose suicide raises many still-unanswered questions. And of course Washington isn't any more vicious than New York or corporate America.

And hey, if we pull our punches out of fear that someone might kill himself, then we couldn't engage in good, aggressive journalism. Message: We didn't kill the guy.

This is all true as far as it goes. The problem is that the Journal editorial-page attack that helped make Mr. Foster so despondent was not good, aggressive journalism. It was bad, hypocritical journalism.

The same executive-branch prerogatives that were praised by the Journal when George Bush's counsel asserted them were viewed as near crimes when President Clinton's legal team came in. More broadly, the rationalizers don't understand how lame they sound to the public.

Mr. Foster's note -- especially the line "Here ruining people is considered sport" -- captured what so many people despise about the Washington media culture.

That line deserves some deconstruction. On one level, politics has always been viewed as akin to sports, and properly so. When public figures stop being a source of amusement, democracy is in trouble. Despots close the peanut gallery first.

What has changed is that a contact sport has become a blood sport. This savagery is actually a throwback to an earlier era.

The Journal editorial page, for instance, resembles nothing so much as the rabidly partisan 19th-century newspapers that routinely -- often brilliantly -- slandered anyone on the other side of their barricades.

In the modern era the New York Times and other papers reacted against this by developing a cult of objectivity and respectable editorializing that is only now beginning to break apart.

The new tone has meant sharper writing (including on the Times editorial page), but also shouting on television and a general coarsening of public dialogue. Lied to repeatedly over the years by public officials, reporters can no longer be deflected when they pick up a scent.

In 1964, when an aide to Lyndon Johnson was arrested for disorderly conduct in a YMCA men's room, Clark Clifford persuaded the Washington Post to downplay the story. If that happened today, mini-series rights would be sold by noon.

Once a bit of poison is dropped into the media bloodstream, it's hard to retrieve. Mr. Foster saw the White House Counsel's Office blamed for everything that went wrong. It became a press litany: Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lani Guinier . . .

In truth, Mr. Foster's office had nothing to do with the Baird fiasco. Did anyone change the litany? Of course not. Or consider the famous Clinton-haircut story. According to the Post ombudsman, the haircut was mentioned 50 times in the paper, including nine times on the front page.

But when Newsday reported that a review of FAA records showed that the haircut had in fact not held up traffic at Los Angeles airport, the Post ran one measly paragraph on it. Same with other big papers. Newsweek printed no correction at all until now.

After Mr. Foster's death, the media pathology he loathed continued apace. His note was found in little pieces. Good story. Fine. But when the White House delayed turning it over to the U.S. Park Police for a day so that his widow could see it first, the press reacted as if it were Oliver North's shredding party.

Perhaps there's more of the suicide story to tell. It's certainly the media's job to probe. But not to hype.

Mr. Foster, emotionally overwrought, sadly failed to recognize that Washington's cruelty is tempered by its amnesia. For instance, one of his predecessors as deputy counsel, Fred Fielding, was deeply involved in Watergate.

A few years later he was back as Ronald Reagan's counsel as if nothing had happened. No one except the tiny Washington Monthly even cared.

Yes, major figures -- Bert Lance, Donald Regan -- are sent packing under media assault. But short of indictment, which stigmatizes people for life (even if they're innocent), a brief run of bad publicity doesn't usually destroy careers.

For those on the receiving end, that's little comfort. When you're in the cross hairs, you twitch, no matter how famous or obscure you are. You imagine that everyone you meet is privately thinking about your embarrassment. You get a little paranoid.

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