SOLOMON: Media Infatuated With Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright may have charmed Jesse Helms on her way to Senate confirmation as secretary of state, but she was merely flirting with a powerful lawmaker. Her real political love affair is with the national press corps.This winter, both Time and Newsweek have described Albright as "media-savvy." She now elicits reverence from many journalists transfixed with her new superstardom as the highest-ranking woman ever in the U.S. government.These days, old friends on the media mound are pleased to lob slow-pitch questions at Albright -- and then lavish praise on her ability to hit them out of the park. It's not too tough to awe journalists who are eager to be impressed.Before she began her four-year stint as U.N. ambassador in 1993, Albright was a regular analyst for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. Weeks ago, when Bill Clinton named her to be secretary of state, the NewsHour reported with pride: "Her ease in explaining American foreign policy, which President Clinton mentioned in his remarks today, was honed partly on the NewsHour."Albright provides tasty sound bites for reporters and news consumers who relish glib lines-of-the-day. Taunting Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro has become one of her specialties. But she never seems to muster any outrage at repressive regimes that the White House looks upon with favor -- whether China, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.Perhaps because she's adept at lacquering her hard-edged rhetoric with a humanitarian sheen, many liberal commentators express fondness for Albright. In a typical testimonial, columnist Christopher Matthews proclaimed her latest promotion "a tonic to the country's mood."A lot of pundits have lauded Albright's ascension as a breakthrough for feminism. In the same spirit, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asserted that Albright's rise to secretary of state "will open up new doors for women -- not just in this country but around the world."Top officials of the National Organization for Women joined with leaders of other influential feminist groups last fall to pressure the White House on behalf of Albright -- and then claimed credit as soon as she got the president's nod. This is the kind of narrow, shortsighted "feminism" that confuses symbols with substance.Across the globe, poverty is especially devastating for women. Meanwhile -- now more than ever -- Albright is implementing the edicts of an administration that has put harsh economic agendas at the center of its foreign policy. In practice, that has meant pushing and cajoling Third World governments to cut public-sector subsidies for food, health care, housing and education.These "reform" measures are being promoted by the State Department as well as global agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Their prescriptions are popular with investors. But poor women and families the world over are bearing the brunt of policies that slash at already-threadbare safety nets."We are not a charity or a fire department," Albright said recently. "We will defend firmly our own vital interests." Left unexamined by news coverage are crucial questions: Whose "vital interests" is she talking about? Who's being protected -- Wall Street or most Americans?Neither mainstream journalists nor Albright's feminist boosters seem interested in exploring who profits and who suffers as this nation's diplomatic bandwagon rolls forward. When it comes to issues that many liberals and women's groups profess to be passionate about, Albright is well situated to get a free ride.More curious observers might wonder why key members of former President Reagan's foreign-policy team -- such as U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State George Shultz -- have gone out of their way to praise Albright as a fine choice to run the State Department.Albright is quite good at playing to the media -- and she is acutely aware of their importance. During her tenure as U.N. ambassador, she referred to CNN as "the 16th member of the Security Council." The day after being sworn in as secretary of state, she appeared as a guest on CNN's Larry King Live.Madeleine Albright may be media-savvy. But, under the circumstances, that's hardly cause for celebration.

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