. . . but the real issues are not about cocaine or adultery

August 24, 1999|By Norman Solomon

DID THE front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination use cocaine many years ago? Should journalists insist on finding out?

Fiercely debated inside the national media's echo chamber, such questions tell us that candidates and the media are trying, in their own ways, to dance past engagement with real issues.

Obsessions with drug use and adultery dominate the media landscape. Today's political news is more entertaining -- and more accessible -- than policy.

Last September, several members of Congress teamed up with researchers and activists for a dramatic forum about "economic human rights" in this country. The hearing focused on matters of profound importance -- and the big news media ignored it.

In fact, few journalists showed up. They were too busy covering the aftermath of the release of President Clinton's grand jury testimony about Monica Lewinsky.

"Thirty million Americans are hungry," noted the Institute for Food and Development Policy, which helped organize the forum.

"More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. And the country has the highest rate of child poverty among the industrialized countries."

But savvy members of the nation's punditocracy know that such concerns do not merit prolonged media attention.

Like Mr. Clinton before him, Mr. Bush has now taken to denouncing the "politics of personal destruction." Neither man has acknowledged the hypocrisy of his own politics. News outlets, meanwhile, have done little to spotlight the huge gaps between policy prescriptions and private actions.

Exceptional journalism

An exception was a Time magazine column, which was published early last year, in which Barbara Ehrenreich made a profound point: Mr. Clinton "signed a welfare-reform bill that, among many other regrettable things, insults the poor by providing millions for `chastity' education.'

A president who snatches alms from impoverished moms, while consigning their libidos to cold showers and prayer meetings, arguably deserves whatever torments await him as punishment for his own sexual derelictions."

Such analysis is rare in political news coverage. As a group, low-income parents do not qualify for sustained media empathy -- but they're often the targets of news treatment that ranges from condescending to defamatory.

Questions of drug abuse can have a legitimate tie to policy issues. Mr. Bush is eager to downplay what he did when "young and irresponsible," but, in recent years, he has promoted imprisonment for illegal drug use.

Law-and-order move

In 1997, Mr. Bush signed into law a bill that enabled judges to throw people in jail for possessing less than one gram of cocaine.

But the possibility of a politician's hypocrisy is dwarfed by the issue of social justice. While illicit drug use is common among all classes and races, such stern penalties are largely inflicted on the poor and dark skinned.

For all their well-publicized ambivalence about "gotcha" journalism, the most influential journalists are routinely engaged in "don't wanna getcha" journalism when it comes to issues of wealthy privilege and corporate leverage.

Amassing a huge campaign war chest may come off as a bit tacky. But the lucrative embrace of big-money donors -- accompanied by tangible backing from Wall Street -- is widely reported as a clear sign that a candidate is ready to be a prime time player.

As this century nears its end, the crucial deceptions in national politics are not about cocaine or adultery. They involve the power of those with enough economic leverage to dominate Washington and limit democratic decision-making. But we don't hear many journalists asking tough questions about such matters.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." He wrote this for Knight-Ridder News Service.

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