SOLOMON: This Is Your Media Life, Bill Clinton!
Ten years ago, few Americans knew your name. Today, many wish they could forget it. This is your media life, Bill Clinton!When you jumped onto the national stage with peppy rhetoric about moving beyond the ideologies of left and right, you impressed mainstream news outlets. A lot of journalists wanted a "New Democrat," and you did the trick.While making some mild populist noises, you curried favor with big business leaders who fretted about anti-corporate rumblings among Democrats. Months before you won the presidency, numerous reporters and pundits were hailing you as JFK: The Next Generation.After you moved into the White House, of course, scandals became abundant -- but you proved to be a great counter-puncher inside the media ring. More importantly, with a wide range of policies, you pleased many economic heavyweights.Meanwhile, you showed enthusiasm for betraying longtime Democratic constituencies. And in 1996, you succeeded where the GOP had failed for several decades, taking a major step toward dismantling the New Deal with a welfare "reform" law that undermined federal commitments to America's poor children.In January 1998, when Monica Lewinsky suddenly became a household name, you went into damage-control overdrive. You benefited from the fact that many liberal commentators -- repulsed by the sleazy tactics of Kenneth Starr and the far right -- went easy on you.By early August, pathetic excuses were so routine that few eyebrows seemed to go up when Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared in a New York Times essay: "Gentlemen always lie about their sex lives. Only a cad will tell the truth about his sexual affairs."Overall, you and your avid defenders have done the virtually impossible -- making some top Republicans in Congress look like seekers of truth. It's an optical illusion. But you became the perfect foil for every right-wing moralizer from San Diego to Bangor.When you were forced to admit that you'd lied about "that woman," your brief speech was so cravenly evasive that you became, more than ever, a poster boy for duplicity. You functioned as an ultimate media creature -- smarmy and indignant, pious and pugilistic -- once again a fountain of weasel-worded cliches and a champion of not one firm principle.In the process, you've helped the news media to accelerate in the same direction they were headed anyway -- fixating the nation on a convoluted soap-opera plot instead of genuine political discourse. The spectacle is unfolding as some kind of mass hypnosis.Since your mini-speech on Aug. 17, media brickbats have been flying thick and fast. Let that be a lesson to you: These days, if presidential lies extend to sexual activities inside the White House, you're liable to get heavy media censure.In contrast, if you stick to the usual deceptions -- such as advancing the interests of the wealthy at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans -- you can relax, confident that media criticisms will be muted and scattered.Of course, media self-examination has been on display. Fortunately for the big-money interests that have been pleased with your economic priorities, such public introspection doesn't go very deep.Two nights after your semi-apologetic little speech, the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" aired a segment about media coverage of the current scandal. It was a product of the PBS program's special new unit for examining media behavior -- made possible by a $3 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and headed by former CBS News correspondent Terence Smith.The "NewsHour" presented a lengthy discussion between Smith and three other media insiders: the Washington bureau chiefs of The Los Angeles Times and CNN, plus former LA Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel, who's now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Viewers weren't told that Rosenstiel's project is financed by Pew, the same multibillion-dollar outfit generously funding Smith and the "NewsHour." It was all very cozy -- and typical.So, Bill Clinton, beyond tragedy and farce, you remain a figment of our national non-imagination. Despite all the uproar, your longtime corporate backers are not worried about the news media getting out of hand. You may sink beneath the political waves, but the Fortune 500 will stay high and dry.