A view of media inside that other Beltway

October 23, 1998|By J. Herbert Altschull

DRUM roll. Music up, swells. Deep, sober male voice intones: "Crisis Inside the Beltway."

All the key words are there. There's a Crisis. It's everywhere inside Interstate 495, the Washington Beltway. It is deep, profound. It is something we are advised to take seriously. It affects all the instruments of government: executive, legislative, judicial; it also affects the news organizations that make sure we get the message. The dramatic music, the solemn intonation they, too, make sure we don't mistake the message.

There's a catch. That Crisis is reported to the American people outside the Beltway. But nobody inside the Washington Beltway knows whether all this deadly seriousness exists outside the Beltway.

As one who used to live on the inside and tried to report to the people on the outside but who now lives on the outside, I think I can explain.

When you live and work inside I-495, you are obsessed with the work you do, the people you meet and the topics that consume you and your friends and associates. It's all you talk about. What everybody inside the Beltway talks about is the government. This means politics; who's up, who's down.

Sounds simple and obvious, doesn't it? It isn't. Let's leave aside the folks who make a living out of sensation. That excludes nearly all the talk-radio and talk-TV people. They go only where there are bucks to be made. And we all know that nothing sells better than sex. Crisis sells pretty well, too. So when you have a crisis about sex, you have the best of all possible worlds.

Then there are the serious journalists who under normal circumstances seriously believe they are performing a serious function in keeping the people of this country well-informed about the reality of what is taking place at the highest level of government. At first glance, it seems surprising that these serious journalists have also succumbed to the drama of the story of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Beltway chatter

But a second glance shows this is not so surprising, because these serious journalists also live and work inside the Beltway. They read the papers, check the Internet, watch the talk shows and TV news. And they talk almost exclusively to each other. Their friends and acquaintances are other journalists and an unending string of news sources. And what do these people tell each other? Easy. They tell each other how important they are, how significant to the life of the country it is that they report and interpret the news.

Who could argue otherwise? How could these serious journalists not believe in their overwhelming importance? How could they not believe that without them the Republic would fall? Inside the Beltway, they never hear anything else.

So they cheerfully trundle out to the television studios and impart their wisdom to the folks outside the Beltway. Not only do they know what is happening, but they also begin to believe they know what the people outside the Beltway think or at least what they ought to think, what they would think if they knew as much as the pundits (that seems to be the generic term these days).

This is not to suggest that these men and women are bad people. It means only that in their environment, it is almost impossible not to think as they do. I know this because of my

long tenure in that incestuous environment.

Journalists and their sources live together inside the cocoon of the Beltway; they meet each other not only at the workplace but also at restaurants and bars and their homes. When a journalist or news source leaves one job, he or she often moves directly into a job on the other side of the equation. Each knows how the other thinks, and in their secret (or not so secret) heart, they often admire their supposed adversary.

Getting back to reality

You have to spend some time outside the Beltway and mingle with people for whom the business of partisan national politics is less than their most important concern, to understand the Beltway environment.

I learned this after moving outside the Beltway. Only then could I begin to grasp how profoundly the incestuous life inside the Beltway consumes almost everyone who lives in those narrow confines. Since then, I have spoken with a number of my former colleagues and their successors and have found no one who was not afflicted, no matter how they may have struggled.

Hear of a good story? You're like a fireman when the bell rings. You don't think. You rush off to fight the fire, whether it's a real fire or a false alarm. You track down every rumor. There isn't time to reflect.

You simply can't understand how the polls can show that two-thirds of the American people continue to believe that Mr. Clinton is doing a good job as president whatever they may think of his personal moral code. They'll come around, you say. When they know what we know.

Interesting, isn't it, that this idea is shared by most of the politicians who dwell inside the Beltway as well? The public will come around, they say.

So far, however, they haven't.

If anything good comes out of all this, it may be that the people who live and work inside the Beltway will learn the peril that lurks when they live and work inside their Beltway cocoon and communicate primarily with others inside that cocoon.

That good, however, may not come. If not, the scalding winds of fascism that have tried again and again to sweep aside our democratic safeguards may finally gain the foothold they have long been seeking. The ultimate battle may have to be fought between zealotry and moderation.

J. Herbert Altschull is a professor in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of "Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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