Why the Media Love Bill and Monica
The Clinton sex scandal has become the flavor of the season in the nation's news media and the broader official political culture. The punditocracy is working around the clock to constantly rehash, redigest, reassess and regurgitate what can be called, for better or for worse, Cigargate.Self-appointed moral stewards like William Bennett, Chris Matthews, A.M. Rosenthal, and what seems like the entirety of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News network constantly lecture us on how Clinton has shown he does not have the moral stature to remain in office.Although not solely responsible, wall-to-wall media coverage and media moral outrage are cornerstones of this sex scandal. It speaks volumes about the severe limitations of our media and mainstream political culture for democracy. Despite the glare of media attention, I share the feeling of so many Americans and (from what I can discern) almost the entire rest of the world on this matter: It is absurd. A special prosecutor with a seemingly unlimited budget, a grand jury and the power to subpoena spends years investigating every possible rumor of Clinton ill-doing and has zilch to show for it. Indeed, as a public official Clinton arguably has the cleanest verified record in U.S. history. Then a series of irrelevant questions in a bogus civil suit bankrolled by the president's enemies produces the perjury and obstruction of justice charges surrounding consensual sexual activity.The foundation for the case are recordings of private conversations make secretly and possibly illegally by a so-called friend of Monica Lewinsky, whose admitted goal all along has been to destroy this president.It is doubtful that any person could survive this caliber of inquisition. And it is obvious that no person should ever be subjected to this type of inquisition.A LYING SLEAZEBALLBefore you dismiss this as the ravings of a Clinton partisan, consider this: I did not vote for him in 1996. I consider him an abysmal president, who has done much to make the Democratic Party every bit the pawn of corporate America that the Republican Party is.And sure, Clinton is a lying sleazeball at a personal level, but is that news?From what is emerging about Newt Gingrich, Helen Chenoweth, Dan Burton, and Henry Hyde, he has a lot of company. (To the extent Clinton's consensual sexual affair involved workplace issues, there may be some cause for reprimand, too, but certainly not grounds for impeachment.) Despite the rantings of the groin police, the notion that lying about extramarital sexuality is a certain indicator of public immorality and incompetence is debatable, and hardly a legitimate yardstick for impeachment.More important is how the hypocrisy and corruption of our media system and broader political culture shine through in this episode. Numerous newspapers and pundits demand Clinton's head because "he has lied to us, so we can never trust him again." But when he and other presidents routinely lie on matters of public policy and foreign affairs, such a demand is never heard. Consider that Clinton's justification for bombing the Sudan in August--that it housed a chemical weapons plant--now appears to have had, at best, weak evidence to support it. But the pundits and editorial pages continue to laud that bombing as bold leadership, although Clinton certainly misled the public and may well have lied.So it is perfectly okay to lie about what you are elected to do, but not to lie about consensual sexual activities that have little to do with your job?GOODBYE TO GOOD JOURNALISMThe concentrated corporate control of the news media is the fundamental factor that accounts for why the Clinton sex scandal is receiving lavish coverage, while stories of far greater public import languish on the margins or are ignored in toto.Corporate-dominated media have virtually killed off journalism as a democratic institution in the United States. Good journalism is bad business. Good journalism requires reporters with institutional resources and protection, and the product rarely can generate revenue to justify the expenses compared to other alternatives.Good journalism will also invariably piss off people in power. And that is very bad for business. Check out what passes for news on television and in much of the print media: crime and violence stories, celebrity profiles, thinly veiled paeans to commercial enterprises and values, and massive coverage of business and upper- middle-class lifestyle issues. Coverage of politics tends to be based upon press releases and official statements.And that's not all. The leading Washington journalists are those who do the most TV shows and get the most money for celebrity lecture tours. Their stock in trade is not being informed on issues, but, rather, being "expert" as assessing how issues might affect various political fortunes.Watch all the talking-head shows that proliferate on TV today. All one tends to learn is how health-care reform, or economic decline, or educational reform might affect the contest between Clinton and Newt, the outcome of the fall *98 elections, or the race for the presidential nominations in 2000. As James Fallows has written, it is generally pointless speculation with little intellectual nutritional value, and it keeps Americans woefully misinformed about the policy decisions being made.NEWS AS SOFT PORNThe Clinton sex scandal is a dream-come-true for the corporate news media. It is easy to cover, extremely inexpensive as far as news stories go, requires little research and pisses off no powerful corporate or institutional forces, except for the president himself and a few close allies.It is soft porn like much of what the media giants serve up to attract audiences, with minimal creative risk. The intent is to create an "O.J.-like" spike effect on news ratings, circulation and ad sales. Perhaps best of all, the Clinton sex scandal has an impeachment-resignation motif that gives it a sense of grave urgency.This permits all sorts of journalists to weight in somberly on what a historical crisis we are experiencing, hence hyping the news product all the more. Many of these journalists probably cut their teeth on Edward R. Murrow exposing Joe McCarthy or Walter Cronkite reporting the Kennedy assassination. The epitaph for the contemporary star journalists will be that they covered Bill Clinton's lying about blow jobs, while Rupert Murdoch, GE and Time Warner laughed all the way to the bank.Now, consider the coverage of the Clinton sex scandal next to the coverage of the last special prosecutor's report: Lawrence Walsh's meticulous Iran-Contra investigation. That report, conducted with little of Starr's overtly partisan ambitions, received only a small fraction of the press coverage of the Starr report, despite its immense seriousness.Republicans were able to effectively quash its political damage by playing a brand of partisan hardball that they, alone, continue to play. Had the news media afforded the Walsh report the same treatment (and moral outrage) as the Starr report, our recent political history may well have been dramatically different.Or compare the coverage of the Clinton sex scandal to the coverage of a more recent and truly genuine national scandal: the CIA's involvement in protecting and assisting drug dealers as they introduced crack cocaine in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.In 1996, Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News wrote a three-part story chronicling the details of this sordid operation. If true, the story called into question the very existence of the CIA, its thorough political unaccountability, and a news media that has been asleep at the switch while all of this had been going on for decades.It also suggested that there were grounds to consider many top government officials--including the president and top congressional figures--on charges of treason.Webb's story was ignored by the balance of the news media, and then repudiated by The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times a few months later in what now look like veiled hatchet jobs, seemingly designed to justify the elite media's failure to cover the CIA's legendary illegal activities for the past 50 years. In 1997, under severe pressure, the San Jose Mercury News denounced its own story and Webb was reassigned to a suburban news bureau.Webb defended his story's veracity all along.Now, in March 1998, the CIA inspector general informed the U.S. House that the CIA has had "relations" with drug dealers for decades, and that the CIA received confidential clearance from the Reagan Justice Department in the early 1980s so that CIA agents would not have to disclose their dealings with the drug trade to anyone in the government.In short, the CIA had previously lied to Congress under oath on these matters on numerous occasions.BLISSFULLY QUIETA democratic media system would have scores of top-flight journalists pursuing this deceit with a vengeance. But the corporate news media steadfastly ignore the issue. Any journalist who proposed to cover it now would be dismissed as a conspiracy kook.Likewise, the punditocracy is blissfully quiet on this issue. There are no impassioned pleas by William Bennett saying that if the CIA can lie to the American people and break American laws it has no justification for existence. The New York Times and Maureen Dowd are not lamenting the destroyed lives and communities--and immense cost to taxpayers--wrought by crack cocaine and demanding that those responsible to be held accountable.Why is that? There are many reasons, perhaps, but one is inescapable: To pursue the CIA story would require journalists to go into an American heart of darkness, to examine the antidemocratic basis of so many of our institutions and the close connection between the affairs of the military-industrial complex and the interests of the Fortune 500. The corporate media giants, today more than ever, are themselves cherished members of this select club.Such journalism would step on the most powerful toes in our society. It is precisely the type of journalism a genuine democracy must have, and it is the type of journalism a pseudo-democracy based on massive public apathy and demoralization cannot afford.So our moral outrage is channeled to Bill Clinton's lying about consensual sex. And to the pundits and marketing mavens who rule so much of what is called journalism, this all makes perfect sense. Any other course would be unthinkable.