No News Please, Were 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 populationthe 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."
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.
Carter does have a history with the mayor. The pugnacious Carter's questions have reportedly irked Giuliani for several yearsthough the administration has also griped about Andrew Kurtzman, NY1's other prominent City Hall reporter, and following Giuliani's election in 1993, city commissioners were kept off all of NY1's political talk shows for seven months. Last year, Giuliani accused Carter of having "no decency" when Carter asked him about rumors of an affair with mayoral aide Christyne Lategano, which had recently been aired by New York magazine. Months of behind-the-scenes warfare with Lategano culminated with a Carter pledge: "I will destroy you."
The mayor's office did not return phone calls. But Carter says now that "Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has the right to say anything he wants. I try to keep in mind that this is the same mayor who called me when I was in the hospital to see how I was doing."
The mayor has long refused to speak to The Amsterdam News, whose current issue carries the banner headline HARLEM HELD CAPTIVE. AmNews editor Elinor Tatum says the last time the paper asked directly for an interview with Giuliani, an administration flack said it "wouldn't be in the best interest" of the mayor to grant the request. Asked whether the mayor's relationship to black journalists has a racial animus, Tatum responded with a question: "Would we even expect him to give respect to black reporters when he won't respect black leaders?"
Other African American journalists, while declining to speak on the record, downplayed a racial cast to the mayor's press criticism, and more than one noted that Giuliani also carped about Times coverage of the rally last week. Indeed, Giuliani's wrath seems to have been prompted at least in part by the efforts of beat reporters at the Times, News, and Newsdayas well as at local broadcast stationswho found daily contradictions in shifting administration explanations of the rally's violent denouement.
In his day-after comments about the melee, for example, the mayor said police had moved to stop the rally immediately after 4 p.m. because a court order is "sacred." But a Monday Times story noted the mayor's pre-rally comment "that the police would allow 'some reasonable flexibility' in ending it at 4 p.m." The mayor quickly switched tacks, saying cops had moved because of Muhammad's "incitement to riot and murder."
A day later the administration's story shifted again, and a police video screened Wednesday purported to show that cops acted only after being pelted with debris. Then Newsday revealed that a swooping helicopter had been part of a prearranged police plan, and footage on NY1 and WCBS-TV showed that before the scuffle, a phalanx of cops had moved to shut off the rally's generator.
Carter, for his part, says he's experienced no backlash at the station from Giuliani's criticism, and Steve Paulus, NY1's veep for news, expressed complete confidence in Carter's work. "The mayor's gotten personal with other reporters," Paulus added. "He's done it to lots of people. Last week it was a little more noticeable because we had that tape." But Paulus also allowed that when it comes to the mayor and race, "there's a heightened sensitivity. And it's pretty remarkable how few African American reporters there are on the political beats."
The Starr report eviscerated any number of journalistic prohibitions; among them was The New York Times ban on the phrase "blow job." The historic first cite was on page B18 of Saturday's paper, at the end of footnote 316: "And then I [Lewinsky] made a joke and I said, 'Well, can I be Assistant to the President for Blow Jobs?' He said, 'I'd like that."'
The appearance of the phrase in the paper was received with particular rue by one Times reader. Mac Wellman, the Downtown playwright, wrote a satire called Seven Blowjobs in 1992, which scored a cabal of posturing politicians with distinct resemblances to Helms and D'Amato and their ilk. The Times reviewed the play without ever revealing its title. The paper's current linguistic turn prompted this response from Wellman: "Interesting. You can use a bad word to hobble a foolish 'Democratic' president with an embarrassing personal problem; however, you cannot use the same bad word to satirize a Republican senator intending to undermine the Bill of Rights. When some folks refer to the 'liberal' press I wonder exactly what they mean."
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