Smart Pundits, Dumb Quotes

December 16, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--A wonderful eight-foot fax rolled in the other day from the Media Research Center, a politically conservative outfit in Washington that pays close attention to what the luminaries of our national press corps are writing and saying.

This dreary labor results in a lively newsletter filled with quotes of the I-can't-believe-he-said-that sort. Now from the files, selected by a jury of nasty people unlikely ever to become regulars at the Clinton compound on Martha's Vineyard, comes ''Notable Quotables of 1993, The Sixth Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting.''

If you believe in dark media conspiracies, the award-winning selections might confirm your worst fears, because they do catch important media figures spouting nonsense before the American public, or admitting their prejudices when they think nobody much is watching. But if you believe the American public is a lot smarter than most of these overpaid print poohbahs and broadcast bigfeet, you'll be reassured.

I forward to the day when the awards are annually presented live on prime-time television, each famous ninny stepping forward to receive a little gold statue of Janet Cooke. (No, as yet there's no statue of Ms. Cooke, a Washington Post reporter who won fame by writing a prize-winning feature which later turned out to have been fiction. But there should be. She'd be a fine emblem for the work being recognized here. Then we could refer to a particularly dreadful newspaper story or broadcast as a candidate for a Janet.)

The envelopes, please.

A Janet to Time magazine (one of many this year) in the Media Hero category. It's for this, in the May 3 issue: ''What do you do for an encore after ending the Cold War and reversing the arms race? How about saving the planet? That's the latest assignment for Mikhail Gorbachev, having assumed the presidency of the International Green Cross, a new environmental organization.''

No Janet, but a runner-up award, to Time's Stanley Cloud. He reported from the capital on May 10 that Attorney General Janet Reno, ''who had already pretty much captivated Washington with one gutsy performance after another, achieved full-fledged folk-hero status.''

A Janet to Dan Rather of CBS in the Presidential Puffery category, for this, as he was speaking to President Clinton via satellite from a May 27 CBS affiliates meeting convened to promote the new Rather-Connie Chung news team: ''If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners. . . . Thank you very much and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her and we're pulling for her.''

A runner-up award in this category to Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who observed, apparently seriously, on January 27 that ''the nation is about to be led by its first sensitive male chief executive. . . . He can speak in the rhythms and rhetoric of pop psychology and self-actualization. He can search for the inner self while seeking connectedness with the greater whole.''

A Janet to Howell Raines, editorial-page editor of the New York Times, in the I Still Hate Reagan category. Mr. Raines, appearing on PBS to discuss his new book (on fly fishing, said to be excellent), noted that ''I don't shield my politics in this book, as I do in much of my journalism, as I've been disciplined to do. The Reagan years oppressed me because of the callousness and the greed and the hard-hearted attitude toward people who have very little.''

A great big Janet in the Dumbest Quote of the Year category to Michael Weisskopf of the Washington Post, whose February 1 news story on evangelical Christians solemnly reported that those who follow Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson on television ''are largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.''

And finally, an honorary Janet, or maybe a Nina, to Nina Totenberg for the following exchange -- on ABC's ''Nightline'' -- with the Hon. Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court, regarding death penalty cases.

Ms. T.: ''Have you ever cried over these cases?''

Mr. Justice B.: ''Have I ever what?''

Ms. T.: ''Have you ever cried over them?''

Mr. Justice B.: ''No.''

The above are just a tiny sampling of the full volume of hot air and pretention belched out by the big opinion factories during the year.

Why do bright people say some of these dumb things? Probably because they echo what the people they work with every day say. If the people in the office always tell you they love your suit, you'll probably think it's high fashion. You may not even notice if, when you go outside, children giggle and point at the gaping hole in the seat of your pants.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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