What a week: Newt Gingrich does two things that Press Clips can applaud. He resigns as speaker, perhaps the sole act of his political career that will measurably improve the nation, and before he goes, he lambastes the Washington media establishment for being “obsessed” by Monica. Sure, the man who announced in April that he would “never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic”— the man who launched a final election-week blitz of scandal ads— has perhaps less right to make the point than anyone this side of Kenneth Starr, but it remains salient nonetheless.
After all, couldn’t last week’s elections be seen as a referendum on the media? The confusion and gloom the punditocracy exuded on election night suggested that many media mavens sensed this— though one can’t underestimate the impact of many a conservative commentator’s dashed Republican hopes. Nowhere was this more apparent than on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. As late as 11:30 Michael Barone was saying hopefully, “I think it’s a wash in the House right now.” Brit Hume seemed resigned to the fate of the GOP, “in a year when the leader of the Democratic Party has set off sort of a national stink bomb,” but Fred Barnes wasn’t willing to give in: “Even if there is a wash tonight, Bill Clinton will go down as the president under whom his party was practically wiped out.”
Their chagrin is understandable: these political insiders were spectacularly wrong about the election. Barone, for example, had predicted that the GOP would gain eight House seats. And as we all know, they were not alone: Bill Kristol was convinced the GOP would gain 15; George Will, six to 20; John McLaughlin, 13; Pat Buchanan, 12; Tony Blankley, seven. Even a liberal like Al Hunt thought the Republicans would pick up five or six Senate seats.
While the pundits’ pratfall can be appreciated for its humor, it’s a sad reflection of a political press corps as elitist, self-aggrandizing, and myopic as the ruling class they purport to stand apart from and analyze. Or, as Scott Shuger noted in Mother Jones, “there isn’t just a gulf between ordinary people and the contemporary notion of political scandal— there’s also a gulf between ordinary people and what lands in their driveways every morning.”
Is the punditocracy different from you and me? Well, yes, they have more money. And they certainly are a narrow lot: Jeff Cohen of the progressive media watchdog FAIR counted 35 pundits on TV election night. Thirty-two were white; three black; none Latino, Asian American, or Native American.
Consider Tony Blankley, former press secretary to self-proclaimed populist revolutionary Newt Gingrich. On Sunday, The New York Times quoted Blankley humbly acknowledging, “We’re better at explaining Washington to the country than the country to Washington.” A remarkable statement for someone who spent years convincing people that he and his boss were explaining the country to Washington. But there was no word from the Times about why Blankley— like the rest of his ilk— is so unsuited to explaining us to them. The Times might have profited by revisiting Blankley’s column in the November issue of George, in which Blankley described being accosted by a drunken, resentful Democrat:
“After briefly engaging him in idiotic conversation, I got the sense that he was itching to spill some of my blood on my beautiful gabardine suit and hand-stitched Brioni shirt. (Judging from his own appearance, I doubt he could appreciate the exquisite workmanship of Brioni’s Italian seamstresses.)” Thus a brief glimpse into Blankley’s world, the métier of a political expert who could assert, pre-election, that “what remains of the Democratic party will be in the worst condition of an opposition party since . . . 1932.”
Meanwhile, we heard almost nothing, before and after the election, about the remarkable campaigns of, say, Tom Vilsack in Iowa and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. With the national media descending on Minnesota to follow Jesse Ventura around, Vilsack’s impressive populist gubernatorial victory— built on an impressive labor-farmer coalition— has hardly been noticed. Likewise, the triumph of Baldwin, the first out lesbian elected to the U.S. House— and who promises to be one of the most progressive members of Congress— was a blip on big media’s radar. (Not to suggest the elections were revolutionary: as the Center for Responsive Politics points out 95 percent of House candidates who spent more money won.)
Frank Rich got it right this weekend: “The reason the Washington media keep missing the story is that they are part of the story.” But the punditocracy gave no sign that it recognized the fact. William Kristol told Press Clips that “It would be flattering to think that millions of people have me and my kind in mind, but that just isn’t the case.” As for being out of touch, Kristol said, “Sure, fine. I plead guilty. I was wrong.” Then he chuckled.
Meanwhile, on the Sunday pundit platforms, the herd mainly ganged up on Newt. Again, Gingrich was on target despite himself: the spectacle resembled nothing so much as cannibalism.
This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine contains, for the first time, a story
by novelist John Irving. But Irving’s untitled fiction— involving sex, skiing, and copious amounts of half-frozen vodka—
is actually ad copy for Absolut. It appears as part of a spread: on one page the words
“ABSOLUT IRVING.” float over a blurry photo of the author’s visage; the facing
page features a short short story— in Times-y
typeface— that mentions Absolut three times. The spread is not identified as an ad.
Is this the latest breach of the edit/ad wall? Times magazine editor Adam Moss sounded more bemused than worried: “Because of the design, it will be clear to almost all readers that it is an ad.” And the story, points out Moss, is part of a well-known series. Absolut has also commissioned vodka-drenched writing by litterateurs Dominick Dunne, Julia Alvarez, and Douglas Coupland, and its ads featuring bottle art are ubiquitous. Indeed, Irving’s Absolut story has itself run in New York, GQ, and The New Yorker, whose editor, David Remnick, sounded slightly more uneasy about it: “We take very seriously the division between editorial content and advertisements in The New Yorker and don’t want the reader to get mixed up between the two. And when there is that danger, we make the difference clear with a label.”
But the Irving ad did not have a label affixed to it in The New Yorker. This despite the fact that both magazines did slap notices on other ads running in the same issues. The Times Magazine posts the word advertisement throughout the pages of a Florida real-estate supplement that’s stapled into the magazine, and The New Yorker does the same for a Bvlgari bag ad that features a leather-loving short story by novelist Ernesto Mestre. And while, as Moss suggests, the Absolut ads may not confuse many, the copycat typefaces seem to invest the Irving copy with the imprimatur of both magazines. Moss acknowledges that “It’s unfortunate that the typeface is close but not identical to our body type,” but though “it’s an interesting point worth thinking about, it doesn’t trouble me deeply.”
Only a year ago the magazine world was awash with warnings about the incursion of advertisers, following Esquire‘s decision to kill a David Leavitt story deemed likely to offend Chrysler. Then, though, alarums were raised by an advertiser’s demand for product-friendly editorial. Here, the advertiser has supplied its own happy copy— at, reportedly, $25,000 to $30,000 a pop— and merely asked magazines for a wink. And that, it seems, is not too much to ask.
Research: Soo-Min Oh