No News Please, We’re American

Last week, the United Nations released its annual human-development report, bundling the stat-heavy document with an introduction by John Kenneth Galbraith. It received no notice in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, or on CNN. So what does this document reveal that media machers deem unworthy to report? Worldwide inequality rose last year not only among nations but within nations. The combined wealth of the 225 richest people now equals the annual income of nearly half the world's population—the poorest 2.5 billion. And in a poverty index ranking the top 17 industrialized countries, the United States came in dead last, with 16.5 percent of Americans living in poverty.

Granted, this kind of information comes off a bit dry when measured against the prospect of presidential porn, but it was found fit to print by the Times of London, Le Monde, the BBC, the Toronto Star (and China Daily, the Irish Times, Africa News, etc.). In the week leading up to the posting of the Starr report, and in the days since, poll numbers have suggested that the public has an ample ability to discern between the prurient pleasures of the text and news that matters. But not our big media. Their obsession with Clinton's woes has not only consigned some news to oblivion, it has even infected stories ostensibly devoted to something else.

The New York Times covered the U.N. report this Sunday, but it has hardly been immune to selective oblivion. On September 4, for example, the paper of record ran a story headlined "Gephardt Trumpets '98 Agenda of His Party." Covering Richard Gephardt in New Hampshire, Lizette Alvarez began by noting that "the word 'scandal' or the name Monica Lewinsky did not drop from Mr. Gephardt's lips once in his speeches at fund-raisers and at a senior citizen center here." Instead, said Gephardt, he wanted to focus on issues like "education, managed health care, and Social Security."

And what did he have to say about those issues? Readers of the Times story never learned, since Alvarez devoted the rest of the story to eliciting Gephardt's reaction to Joseph Lieberman's speech about Clinton, Gephardt's ruminations on the way impeachment hearings should go, Gephardt's complaints about Republican maneuvering over hearings.

Still, it could be argued that the piece exhibited a smart regard for realpolitik, since Gephardt, after all, is a likely candidate for president in 2000. Funny, though, how selective that healthy cynicism was, as a parade of blowhards and hucksters strutted across the media screen, auditioning for (and being accorded) the lofty title of "statesman."

Consider the case of Lieberman. The senator, whose past crusades have included brave jeremiads against Roseanne and Rosie O'Donnell, might better be lumped with Dan Quayle or the unctuous William Bennett, who serves on the advisory board of the Center for Judeo-Christian Values in America along with Lieberman and Ralph Reed. But after his Senate-floor denunciation of Clinton, Time's Karen Tumulty gushed that the "statesmanlike" senator's words were prompted by "no apparent agenda beyond his sense of right and wrong." Tumulty's sentiments were immediately echoed by the rest of the punditocracy, which espied no possible political motives for Lieberman's move.

Then, on Friday, the other shoe dropped, courtesy of syndicated neocon Ben Wattenberg. "President Lieberman?" wondered Wattenberg, who intoned, "Clearly, it was not a politically motivated address." But, burped Ben, "that is not the same as saying that what happened will have no effect on Lieberman's political future." Then Wattenberg boasted of having planted the seed back in March, when a column he wrote urging Lieberman to run for president became news in Connecticut.

But perhaps no one benefited more from willful media naïveté last week than Newt Gingrich. Even Jesse Jackson praised Gingrich on Crossfire for an "amazing level of civility and maturity and restraint." But at least a couple of the many possible reasons for that amazing reticence were not thought relevant by mainstream media mavens: no one at the big papers or networks recalled Gingrich's own adultery and singular role in popularizing the idea that oral sex is not really sex. As Stephen Talbot usefully recalled recently in the online magazine Salon, Gingrich's former mistress Anne Manning told Vanity Fair in 1995 that on her first date with Gingrich in 1977, "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'" She added that Gingrich told her, "If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll say you're lying."

Color Coded?

Does Mayor Giuliani's latest war with the city's black leaders, sparked by the Million Youth March, have a press-world analogue? Last week the mayor singled out Dominic Carter, NY1's City Hall reporter, and accused him of "dishonest" and "one-sided" reporting on the Harlem rally. Carter, who has been described by NYU urban analyst Mitchell Moss as "one of the most important black journalists now in the city," devoted several reports to march preparations, was on the scene during the rally, and covered the aftermath.

At a Giuliani press conference last Wednesday, Carter recalls, "I asked the question: 'If there had been no incidents of violence all afternoon, why was it necessary to have riot police there, period?' Then he singled me out." A clip of Giuliani's blast at Carter ran on NY1.

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