All Clinton, All the Time

"Have fun. Have a good time. Have fun with this."

So said the voice in my earpiece. I was sitting alone in a television studio, about to film a segment on a cable news talk show, and the producer was trying to get me pumped. There was only one problem. The subject at hand was George W. Bush and military spending.

I wanted to shout at the guy, "Have fun? This is about defense policy. It's not supposed to be fun. We're talking about missile defense systems, nuclear war, billions of dollars in expenditures -- whether we're going to enhance the security of the nation and the world or engage in actions that destabilize international relations. This is not supposed to be an upbeat, laughs-galore topic."

Instead, I straightened my tie, leaned forward slightly (a television consultant once advised me on the proper posture for such shots), and gazed straight into the camera.

After I was introduced, I pointed out that even though Bush warned the Pentagon he's not immediately going to hand it the additional money the Joint Chiefs of Staff crave (up to $50 billion a year) -- a position that contradicts Bush's campaign promise to bolster military spending -- his missile defense system carries a budget-busting pricetag of $100 billion-plus. (Here's a delicious possibility: what if the Pentagonists have to choose between money for a missile defense system that has yet to work and money for their regular goodies? Might they turn on the missile-defense program?)

My antagonist, stuck in another studio, cheered Bush, and we verbally wrestled, good-naturedly of course, for a few minutes. With a friendly chuckle, the anchor thanked us. Then it was back to the real stuff: the Marc Rich pardon and Bill Clinton in Harlem.

News junkies who flip on cable television to obtain their fix recently might have wondered if something was amiss with their sets. Instead of news, they've been getting a soap opera, "As the Clintons Turn."

There's nothing wrong with the media zooming in on Clinton's suspicious pardon of a fugitive financier, the uproar it caused, and his wandering-president search for office space. But it's been super-saturation coverage. That's because Clinton provides what much of the media desires: a storyline. He -- and his occasional sidekick, Hillary -- offer a mini-series-like narrative. It's a reality-TV-version of West Wing.

They get into the darnest predicaments. Will they survive or be voted off? Will they succumb to temptation? And which ones? Flatware? Contributions? What will those rascals do next? And can they once more outfox their Javertesque pursuers?

The Republicans have added spice to the script by using the I-word and raising the specter, even if farfetched, of another Clinton-in-the-dock spectacle. If the GOPers were smart, they'd shut up for a while and permit the US attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee, to conduct her probe of the Rich pardon in peace. But like the fabled scorpion that stung the frog ferrying it across a river, thus dooming both animals, the Republicans cannot help themselves. Clinton is a red flag that must be charged. Yet he keeps managing to escape their clutches. What good TV. Who doesn't like watching Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote? Stay tuned.

To say that much of the broadcast media has embraced the values of entertainment is not news. Yet the trend appears to be worsening. The odorous Rich pardon warrants digging, not merely mastication. But one need not be a Clinton apologist to wonder if the media has gone cuckoo for Clinton puffs.

Even such a foe of big-money politics, corporate crime, and influence-peddling as Ralph Nader -- a bona-fide Clinton hater -- got his fill of the Marc Rich story.

"Global infectious diseases are far more important right now for the media to pay attention to," he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Anyone care to challenge that? My gag-me moment came when I was watching CNN. It aired a long piece of "breaking news" footage of Clinton coming out of the 125th Street office building. Then correspondent Maria Hinojosa interviewed the owner of the around-the-corner restaurant where Clinton ate lunch that day.

"Did you ever expect to see former President Clinton having lunch in a restaurant in Harlem?" she asked. The nonplused owner replied, "Not really, no."

She followed up: "And what went on inside the restaurant."

The owner: "They came in and had a real nice lunch."

And what did this mean for him as a business owner? "It's a terrific opportunity. I mean, obviously he likes good food....So I think it's a good place for him to come."

There was time for one more question. Hinojosa inquired, "And you also have pizza in the basement?"

After watching that, would you have felt better informed? I don't want to pick on CNN and Hinojosa; they do not warrant criticism more than their colleagues. But when you obsessively chase after such fare, it's hard to avoid moments like these.

If people are entertained by the Perils of Bill, there's no sin in that. But how about limiting it to one hour a week in primetime? (Can CBS convince the Clintons to place 24-hour-a-day television cameras in their residences and offices in New York and Washington?)

The trouble is that the Clinton saga squeezes out other stories of at least marginal significance -- say, defense spending, the tax-cut debate, and global warming. Have the actual details of Bush's $1.6 trillion tax-cut proposal and the controversy over the numbers underlying his plan received half as much time of that devoted to Giftgate?

In recent weeks, there has been new developments on the global warming front. A working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a project of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations -- released a report noting that global warming is occurring at a quicker pace than previously reported. The study noted that "there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities" -- meaning emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.

This is grim stuff. Dramatic decrease in snow cover. Widespread retreat of mountain glaciers. A serious decline in Arctic sea-ice thickness. A rise of several inches in the global sea level. An increase in the frequency of extreme weather.

The present level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not been exceeded in the past 420,000 years, and perhaps not in the past 20 million years. To stabilize the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (which is more than the current figure of about 370 parts per million), emissions would have to drop below the 1990 levels and stay there for several decades. But the report notes, "eventually carbon dioxide emissions would need to decline to a very small fraction of current emissions," because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere, working their charms, for centuries. Even if emissions were stabilized at the present levels, temperatures and sea levels would increase for hundreds of years. The study estimated a rise of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in this century.

This is a bit more heavy than the pizza around the corner from Clinton's new digs (but -- wait -- what about Rudy Giuliani, who rented the space first?).

The IPCC report did receive front-page treatment, but then it faded from sight. There was no national discourse. Few, if any, stories on the Bush Administration response -- or lack thereof. Not a peep from Capital Hill. I didn't come across any talking-head gabfests on the subject. (Pentagon spending was on the radar screen for a few days only because Bush declared the second week of February "defense week" and he visited several bases.) And another IPCC working group has been preparing a report on the consequences of these global changes. Will there be congressional hearings and Sunday-talk-show coverage of that?

Sure, it's easy to be high-handed and self-righteous about the media. Should we flagellate media execs for pursuing the precious rating points they need to justify their existence to their corporate overlords? It is a material world -- now more than ever. If Clinton-chasing draws eyeballs, how can they cut away? And certainly the mainstream media are not always slaves to ratings. (Topless news readers have yet to sweep the industry.)

Perhaps the best for which one can reasonably hope is that viewers at least realize that they are consuming the output of the news business, not the product of a public service, and that they are fully aware they are supposed to be having fun while doing so.

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