Journalistic standards seem to be falling fast

ON POLITICS

February 24, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The news media circus over the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan Olympics melodrama, now coming to a climax, may have nothing directly to do with politics. But it underscores a growing trash-can journalism that has much to do with the low state of public opinion toward politicians, and of their increasing unwillingness to stay in public life.

The techniques and standards of supermarket tabloids are increasingly seeping into and then dominating news coverage by the mainstream press -- the nation's traditional newspapers and newsmagazines as well as the major television networks.

The phenomenon first came into prominence in politics in the gossip tabloid coverage of Gary Hart's free fall as a presidential candidate in 1987. It was even more pronounced in the launching and pursuit of the womanizing allegations against then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992, and resumed more recently.

In the case of Hart, it was a mainstream magazine, Newsweek, that made the first public reference to Hart's problems in an unsigned article that said that his marriage "has been a longtime but precarious one, haunted by rumors of womanizing," and that "political observers expect the rumors to emerge as a campaign issue." The article quoted a former Hart aide as saying Hart was "always in jeopardy of having the sex issue raised if he can't keep his pants on."

And it was a mainstream newspaper, the Miami Herald, that acted on a telephone tip and staked out Hart's Washington townhouse on the weekend he was visited by Donna Rice. But the supermarket tabloids jumped in with both feet, tracking down and running the photograph of Rice perched on the grinning Hart's knee on a dock in Bimini that probably put the final nail in Hart's political coffin.

By the time the 1992 presidential campaign rolled around, the supermarket tabloids were in the hunt early for evidence to support similar womanizing allegations against Clinton. In earlier years, stories in such publications were viewed with disdain by editors of traditional, general circulation newspapers. But now the recent history of the Hart scandal pushed them front and center.

When the gossip tabloid Star ran the first allegations against Clinton, reporters from mainstream newspapers covering his campaign in New Hampshire asked him about them, and his mere denial was enough to put the fat in the fire. The New York Times resisted at first but few other newspapers did. In their editors' view, Clinton's response, and the altering of his campaign schedule as a result of the furor, made it impossible to ignore the development.

The Harding-Kerrigan story in one sense is different. The public assault on Kerrigan in Detroit and the subsequent arrests of Harding's close associates made it a compellingly legitimate story in its own right. But many segments of the mainstream news media, and network television particularly, have adopted the trash-can techniques and overkill of the supermarket tabloids in squeezing every additional drop of sleaze out of the story -- with the considerable cooperation, to be sure, of Harding herself.

The same deplorable copy-cat modus operandi by the mainstream news media was seen in the Bobbitt sexual mutilation story, wherein the traditional barriers against tastelessness in newspapers repeatedly fell away in a zest to feed the public hunger for details reserved in the past to the blatant peddlers of sleaze.

The answer for practitioners of news reporting that is delivered to doorsteps and is read at breakfast tables is not as simple as it may appear. Even the lofty New York Times felt obliged at some point to deal directly with the Hart and Clinton stories. Once a story enters the nation's living rooms via television, no matter what the original source or its reliability, it is hard to act as if it hasn't been injected into the awareness of mainstream America.

Concerning politicians, the old standard -- that what they do that affects the performance of their jobs is reportable, but what they do in private that doesn't is off-limits -- is obviously out the window. But that doesn't mean that all journalistic responsibility and sense of decency and good taste have to go out with it.

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