Clinton and women: The real moral issue is the reporting

December 29, 1993|By Jon Margolis

ASSUMING that history continues to be studied, history may well remember last week as the one in which the American chattering classes dropped all pretense of intelligence and substance.

Otherwise, the leading chroniclers and commentators in the capital of the world's only superpower would not have spent the week probing and analyzing one cosmic subject: mifky-pifky in the bushes.

It could not be all that long ago that there were standards, because some of us who were raised with them still have several teeth, some hair and even enough energy for occasional mifky-pifky.

In the news business, one of those standards used to be that you didn't put anything in the paper or on the air unless you knew it was true. That meant substantively true, not just alleged, even by an alleger willing to be identified.

Sure, if Sen. Postlethwaite charged that Sen. Hippledorfer was a scalawag, you put that in the paper because it didn't mean anything. It was just politics. But Postlethwaite, in those days before politics had become decadent enough for Robert Dornan to be elected to Congress, would never have suggested publicly that Hippledorfer was a drunk or a womanizer.

If someone else did, some cab driver or cop, the job of a reporter was not to rush to his typewriter (remember them?), but first to look into the validity of the charge. If the alleger had a political or financial stake in making Hippledorfer look bad, it became necessary to get confirmation from someone who didn't.

If no such confirmation was forthcoming, you were left with a situation which was then unremarkable but is now unthinkable. You had. . . NO STORY. You would go to your city editor (he was the one with the green eyeshade) and say, "This is a wrongo, chief." He would grunt in that city-editor way of his, and you'd go on to something real.

No more. Now that news has been redefined to mean only information, rather than information filtered through intelligence, everything is a story somewhere. Maybe it's post-modernism.

Nobody knows exactly what post-modernism is, but one of the things it is supposed to be is the conviction that nothing is real, so only style and technique matter. Thus the billboard along a Chicago expressway proclaiming, "Hey Ross. Your 15 minutes are up," turns out not to be a political statement at all, just a test to see if anyone would notice.

So it was that some of the reporters delving into Bill Clinton's alleged mifky-pifky made much of the fact that they had obtained his telephone records. Good job, guys. The phone records show that he had once made lots of calls to a lady.

So what? The phone records of any normal middle-aged adult would probably show periods in which many calls were made to a non-spouse of the opposite sex. From which one could conclude: (a) that there was mifky-pifky going on; or (b) that there wasn't. In the case of (b) one could conclude (a) that they occasionally thought about it; or (b) that they didn't.

Besides, these phone calls were made a while ago. In a demonstration of adulthood last year, the American people made it quite clear that they didn't much care about Mr. Clinton's past personal life. Was it too much to hope that the chatterers, probers and chroniclers could be as grown-up as school teachers, factory workers and secretaries? Obviously.

It is true that one of the allegations is that Mr. Clinton continued his mifky-pifky ways after being elected. If true, this would be a sign of arrogance and bad judgment. But from all available evidence it is so unlikely to be true that the only scandal involved is the writing about it. Presidents-elect are surrounded by nosy reporters and, more closely, by Secret Service agents. The Secret Service says it never happened.

But in the post-modern world there is no relevance, only technique. The technique is ferreting out information, and the more difficult the ferret, the greater the accomplishment, whether or not the information means anything.

In the new cultural climate, standards have been replaced by raging ambition, incurable airheadedness and a neo-moralism which pretends to be a standard but is really just a self-absorbed attitude, another aspect of the post-modern.

What is impressive is the ability of people to keep a straight face while explaining themselves. "Extramarital affairs is not the subject of our reporting," quoth Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, whose grammar isn't very good, either. No, it was whether Mr. Clinton "used government resources and power" improperly.

Come off it. It's mifky-pifky in the bushes, and the only question is whether all this is in the papers because Bill Clinton engaged in it too often, or because those writing about it could not manage to engage in it often enough.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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