Blame the Messenger

I've been reading of the Clinton fund-raising scandals with increasing frustration. But my frustration isn't directed at the president. It's directed at the press. Every morning, I open the New York Times with about as much enthusiasm as I might open a summons to jury duty. The headlines greet me like a nagging reminder of some unfulfilled civic chore. They make me feel like a failure as a citizen. And I have failed, in one critical respect. I've failed to keep up an interest in the Clinton scandals.I'm tired of the scandals. I can't keep track of them all and, even worse, I don't really want to. Oh, sure, I've forced myself to read more than a few of the Page 1 articles on Donorgate, or whatever it's called, and I have a rudimentary understanding of some of the high points of this particular series of mishaps. Bill wrote a memo. Al made a phone call. Hillary's chief of staff accepted a check. Large amounts of money changed hands, and somehow Barbra Streisand ended up crashing on the Oval Office couch. It all sounds vaguely fishy. But I couldn't explain the details of any of the scandals to a curious Martian if he held a ray gun to my head and a rectal probe to my ass.In this I'm not alone. Indeed, most Americans, it seems, wouldn't care less if Clinton leased the space on his forehead to the highest bidder during his next State of the Union address. Though it's dipped a little in recent weeks, his approval rating remains high, at around 56 percent, and, according to a recent Los Angles Times poll, most Americans think he's no worse, ethicswise, than your typical president.At least I feel guilty about my lack of interest. In this, it seems, I am nearly alone. Indeed, some commentators have begun to speak of their scandalphobia with a certain pride. In a remarkable op-ed piece in last Saturday's New York Times, Kansas newspaperman George B. Pyle suggested that only "losers" -- and Eastern Establishment media elites -- could be dumb enough to imagine that politics should be free of corruption. "Bill Clinton is powerful," he wrote. "Power corrupts. Any more silly questions?" Pyle, the editorial page editor of the Salina Journal, suggested that most ordinary Americans see politics as an inherently dirty business, a "line of work ... where success requires doing things we all used to see as slightly crooked."Some went even further. In a Suck screed that sounded all too much like the (Gen) X News on Mad TV, Ben Schmark declared with a sniffle of contempt that insisting on corruption-free politics was roughly equivalent to believing in Santa Claus (or in, er, Salon). "The Oval Office is a commodity, paid for by the people who have money and who want to keep their money," he snipped. Any more silly questions? "If it's a revelation to anyone that the presidency is bought and sold," Schmark remarked, "well, then shame on you."The real villain in the piece, Pyle and Schmark and a number of other commentators have suggested, is, well, you guessed it, the press -- or, more specifically, the inside-the-Beltway bandits of the New York-Washington media elite. Pyle, who's apparently been reading up on his Spiro Agnew, wrote of the "frustration" of the "Eastern Establishment media" with a palpable glee: You see, the papers keep publishing all them stories about scandals, but Real Americans just can't bring themselves to care! "The best and the brightest of journalism must be wondering whether their work is somehow being blocked, the way Fidel Castro jams Radio Marti," Pyle snorted.Meanwhile, liberal commentator Molly Ivins lambasted the Washington press corps as a bunch of "born-again virgins" for caring so much about scandal. McClatchy Newspapers political editor John Jacobs excoriated "the hyperbolic braying in the Washington press corps as the pack chases stories of Clinton White House fund-raising." And even within the Belly of the Beast -- the Washington Post -- one could find former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson launching his own attack on "gotcha" journalism.All these media critics suggest, in some way, that they speak for the people -- Aronson even manages to work the term "silent majority" into his third graf. But theirs is a curious populism indeed: Instead of railing against the moneylenders (and money-hander-over-ers), they rail against those who expect us to be distressed to see our political futures bought and sold like pork bellies on the commodities market.It's easy enough to understand their frustration. And it's rather difficult to imagine that any of the current burblings about campaign finance reform will make the slightest bit of difference -- after all, the Big Mo is heading the other way: The amount of "soft money" slipped into campaign coffers increased threefold from 1992 to 1996, from $88 million to nearly $264 million. But this attack on the press reflects what psychologists call displacement. "If food is not handy," psychoanalytic writer Calvin S. Hall has noted, "a hungry baby may place a wooden block or its own hand in its mouth."Just so: If real political reform seems unlikely, we take out our anger on the institution that insists on reminding us, again and again, of our relative powerlessness in the political world. We all know that politicians are cynical, out of touch with real Americans, susceptible to the blandishments of money and power. But we know we can't change them. So we accuse the press of being ... cynical, out of touch with real Americans, susceptible to the blandishments, money and power. Which isn't altogether irrational -- but the press isn't quite as central to the problem as we'd like to think.Eventually, babies realize that gnawing at blocks won't stop the gnawing in the pit of their stomach, and they cry out for strained beets or some other facsimile of real food. We can only hope that Americans will realize that media criticism is a poor excuse for a real politics.

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