SOLOMON: The Media Habits of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hype

While tracking the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many prominent journalists have resembled tigers, eager to pounce on President Clinton. With some other issues, in sharp contrast, they behave more like lapdogs.When reporting on the Lewinsky matter, the national press corps has ripped into Clinton's statements to expose evasions and inconsistencies. But when it comes to reporting on President Clinton's economic priorities, the same journalists usually echo his assertions without question.Everyone is aware that media outlets are routinely focusing on salacious news. And when pundits go through the ritual of voicing their disapproval, they're apt to blame entertainment mania. "We now know that ideology has nothing to do with which scandals get major media attention," New York Times columnist Frank Rich proclaimed in late February. "The only criterion that really matters is, is it entertaining enough?"That's an easy diagnosis for what ails the news media. Too easy.Sure, crass commercialism has pushed the mainstream media into an obsession with titillating stories about celebrities. But let's get a grip. Do we really hunger for bigger helpings of standard reportage -- the kind, say, that "informed" the public about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 or the Central American wars of the 1980s?To hear the mass media's favorite critics tell it, the press is suffering from some kind of professional schizophrenia -- a malady of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hype. According to this fantasy, the good doctors of journalism have drugged themselves with tawdry sensationalism. If only they would return to their prior condition of virtue!But more news coverage is no better than less if distortion is still routine, with reporters relying on official sources in Washington and corporate sources on Wall Street to set the tone and provide the slant. Simply bemoaning the shrinkage of traditional news is like griping that a restaurant with a long record of serving rancid food has cut back on the size of the portions.Overall, Americans receive most of their news in skewed patterns. For one thing, the glorification of profit above all other values is itself an ideology -- though by now it's so widespread that it blends into the media scenery, appearing to be part of the natural world. Meanwhile, enormous amounts of media resources go into uncovering and dramatizing certain information, while a pittance is devoted to bringing other realities to light.The themes that hold sway in print and on the airwaves generally reflect the ideologies of media owners, advertisers and underwriters. Big-money pressures and constraints on media content loom large because they take institutional form. In the long run, those who pay the piper don't finance too many threatening tunes -- and most of what remains is music to big corporate ears.But, once in a while, very discordant notes still get through. In a Feb. 25 commentary on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," political analyst Kevin Phillips offered the kind of blunt assessment rarely heard in mass media.Reviewing economic data of the last quarter century, Phillips pointed to the stagnation or decline of real wages for most Americans -- while "the share of income and wealth in the hands of the top 1 percent has risen so quickly that the United States has replaced France as the Western nation with the greatest maldistribution of wealth."Phillips added: "The surprise really is that these trends continued under the administration of a Democrat, Bill Clinton. But in fact he, too, despite periodic Medicare and little-guy rhetoric, has played the globalization game. In this, American companies fire workers to raise their stock prices and tell employees that if wages have to keep up with inflation, they'll lose their jobs. Never mind that corporate profits are out of sight."What is most outrageous about the Clinton adminstration gets bypassed in media coverage. Phillips said it well: "Almost lost in a sidebar of the ongoing Clinton-Lewinsky mess is that the first buddy, the man who ran Lewinsky's job hunt, was Washington super-fixer Vernon Jordan. Jordan and his wife Ann together hold nearly 20 corporate directorships, which may be the nationwide record. And the apparent extent to which the president and his well-wired chum share the same blue chip economic loyalties may be the truer scandal."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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