SOLOMON: Five Years Into the Clinton Presidency

Later this month, as Bill Clinton completes his fifth year in the White House, the press is likely to tell us -- at great length -- what his presidency has meant so far. But don't expect much scrutiny of the news media's role in the Clinton era.When the incoming president took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1993, it was a dream come true for many journalists. They had long bemoaned the failure of the Democratic Party to restrain so-called "special interests." At last, the New Democrats triumphed -- pushing low-income people and other vulnerable Americans to the back of the political bus. Most of the punditocracy beamed.Since then, Clinton's willingness to shaft faithful constituencies of the party has won him more friends in high places. To the applause of numerous commentators, he went to the mat repeatedly on behalf of economic elites -- eager for such measures as pro-business trade pacts, bailouts overseas and harsh "welfare reform" at home.As 1998 gets underway, some revised media cliches are ready for the next phase of the Clinton presidency: Despite all the scandals, he remains popular. Buoyed by popularity, he lacks purpose.President Clinton "has given Americans no vision of where the country ought to be going," New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis lamented in his last commentary of 1997. Such hand-wringing is common -- particularly among liberal pundits.If this president were a Republican, they'd be a bit more inclined to denounce his policies and decry his well-honed talent for dissembling. But he's a Democrat -- and has withstood years of vicious attacks from right-wing Republicans who, in many cases, have engaged in distortions for their own purposes. Clinton's enemies "are so hateful that they have created a certain public sympathy for him," Lewis noted.Yes, Jerry Falwell and some others on the far right have put out a barrage of sleazy lies about Clinton. But that doesn't make Clinton a virtuous president. While clear-eyed assessments of the Clinton administration are in short supply, the news media provide us with a lot of evasive pieties.In his widely syndicated column, Lewis ended last year with these words: "The poison directed at President Clinton goes along with the attacks on all of government as evil. The coin of our politics is being corrupted, and it is hard to see what will restore civic discourse and enable us to deal with the country's real problems."Meanwhile, there's substantial evidence that Bill Clinton "does" have a vision for the country. It is similar to the vision he has pursued for himself: Opportunism. Duplicity. Ultra-pragmatism.These inclinations are apt to be familiar to the many reporters, editors and pundits who feel that career advancement is extremely important. Idealism might sound good, but expediency is shrewd.What mainstream journalists have rarely pointed out -- perhaps because so many of them are part of the process -- is that President Clinton has helped to normalize deceit and narcissism during the 1990s. This tells us something about the Clinton presidency. But it tells us more about the national press corps.There are, of course, journalists who march to the beats of different drummers. Some are independent thinkers willing to go against the dominant grain. Some try their best to serve humanistic values in the work place. But the obstacles and constraints are enormous. And the exceptional feats are dwarfed by the spinning machinery of the mass media.One of the great flaws of American media coverage has been its emphasis on the personal psychodramas of the man in the Oval Office. With inordinate amounts of ink and air time devoted to personalizing each presidency, the political horizons of the country seem to be overshadowed by a never-ending procession of historic individuals.Yet, as media critic Mark Crispin Miller has observed, "this image of the mighty individual is a corporate fiction, the careful work of committees and think tanks, repeatedly reprocessed by the television industry for daily distribution to a mass audience."What's profound about any presidential quest is how it affects the people of this country and the entire world. That's easy for journalists -- and the rest of us -- to forget.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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