A week has passed since the New York Post gave every mug in Mediaville a good guffaw. By now, the whole news-consuming world knows about the front page that breathlessly proclaimed, “John Kerry’s running mate will be veteran U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, The Post has learned.” Boy, has it ever.
Sure, this was a nuclear goof. But as a story, it’s dog bites man. It’s not exactly news that the Post plays loose with the truth. So why are the city’s dailies still buzzing about this boo-boo?
For one thing, bits of it keep oozing out. On Friday, The New York Times postulated that the Post‘s unnamed source was none other than Mediazilla (a/k/a Rupert Murdoch). Apparently he passed the tip on to his galley slaves at the tabloid, and lo, the front page was changed to accommodate it. “Everybody made a mistake,” Zilla now insists. There’s something about this casual apology that reeks of Evelyn Waugh’s bitterly funny novel Scoop, about a tabloid called The Daily Beast. (Read it and you’ll understand how a press lord’s imagination works.)
The early thinking was that Kerry’s cadre had sent out this faux tip. Murdoch was not the only media maven to get wind of it. But only Zilla took it seriously enough to run wild with it. When it comes to journalism, his gut is in the gutter and his brain is at the bank. In other words, he’s stupid. And under his command, a brutish stupidity permeates the Post. Steve Dunleavy is its H.L. Mencken; Cindy Adams is its Susan Sontag.
Readers know that. They buy the paper because it evokes the stupid brute within—a guilty pleasure. Other tabloids operate on higher assumptions, but let’s face it: A smart tab is a leap of faith. It must rely on the strength of its revelations and on its ability to dig beneath the self-interested surface of respectability, a dicey proposition. The Post does the latter without the former, and in that sense it’s a throwback to an era when everyone thought of such papers as pure tab-o-tainment. I guess we still do. The Post won’t say what its circulation was on that mortifying day, but I’ll bet many more people picked it up than usually do, if only for its value on eBay (about $42 as I write).
That leads to the real reason why this story lasted. It had self-referential, postmodern legs. The collectible front page made a perfect prop for Will Ferrell, who held it up on TV to tout his new media spoof, Anchorman. Basically the Post replaced Paris Hilton as an object of tantalizing scorn. And naturally the competing Daily News feasted on the fun. It bragged about sending its rival a case of Cold Duck and a bottle of Australian sparkling wine, with a note that read, “Congratulations on your ‘exclusive’!!! Have a nice day.” A droll editorial begged Murdoch to spare the job of Post editor Col Allan, adding that the thumbnail pic alongside the edit might be the “actual size” of his head.
Well, the News is hardly a paragon of J-schooled virtue. It has a penchant for killing or burying stories that cast aspersions on its favorite pols. Besides, as Times columnist Clyde Haberman pointed out, “there isn’t a major daily newspaper in New York that has not had to ‘fess up to a serious embarrassment in recent weeks and months.” This was a veiled—make that burka’d—reference to the Times‘ WMD blunder, which was far more consequential than the Post‘s gaffe. Its own scandal suggests that the Times still doesn’t consider omitting relevant details to be an error.
The moral of this story is: Never underestimate the power of schadenfreude. It may be the most important emotion in a late-capitalist society, and it shouldn’t be confused with mere pleasure. Schadenfreude affirms our superiority over punk’d others—and insulates us from a fate we deeply fear. For reporters, the spectacle of an errant rag offers special rewards. It allows them to feel better than the dummies, even though many of them are forced to dumb their copy down. And, like those medieval paintings of pockmarked sinners, it offers an image of journo hell that prompts the thought: There but for the grace of God—and fact-checkers—go I.
In this profession, one person’s error is another’s relief.
As the Post got roasted, the really big story was the threat of a new attack by Al Qaeda. Tom Ridge, who often looks like a clueless Perry Mason, appeared with Dick Cheney to announce the latest danger. This casting was an attempt to reinforce the claim that Cheney is fit to be president, as the networks duly noted. But that doesn’t mean the substance of the warning was fake. The safest course is to assume that the threat is real. But then what? Ridge offered no advice other than urging vigilance, and the media passed this along, as they always do, without demanding a more concrete program. I mean, if there’s a chance of nuclear detonation, why not urge people to purchase iodine pills, which can lessen the effect of radiation? If there’s a risk of germ warfare, why not tell us to carry a surgical mask? And what about keeping a supply of meds in your backpack, along with some extra cash in case ATMs go down? (That happened on 9-11.)
I mention these things because they are simple precautions that don’t involve sealing off a room and such. It’s bizarre to hear so much about terrorist scenarios with so little information about how to defend yourself. There’s more concrete detail in the supermarket tabloid Sun—which proclaims this week that “a dire warning about a new, deadly terrorist attack is encoded in Holy Scripture”—than there is in any official terror alert.
People don’t take these admonitions seriously because there’s no way to act on the information. Maybe that’s the idea. If we were more concerned with survival than with consumption, the economy might slow down. The Israelis issued gas masks to every citizen when they thought a chemical strike was imminent. Their assumption is that preserving lives (make that Jewish lives) is the first priority of government. For our leaders, the priority is not life but productivity. That’s why they call it an alert rather than a warning.
After the twin towers collapsed, the government declared the air around ground zero safe. As research has shown, it wasn’t, and the prudent thing would have been to assume that those substances, which had never before been airborne, were toxic. But job number one was opening the stock market and cleaning up ground zero. The lives of rescuers, office workers, and residents in the area were put at risk in order to minimize the economic loss.
I don’t expect Peter Jennings to inform us that our leaders can’t be trusted to protect us. Some truths are too self-evident to be spoken by “objective” journalists. But at least the networks could tell us how to protect ourselves. Right now, their message is, Consider yourself warned, but keep on having fun. Otherwise, doncha know, the terrorists have won. Believe that and you’re making an error far more serious than anything in the Post.
Journos, Go Home
The British Guardian reports that foreign journalists covering the U.S. will no longer be able to renew their visas without leaving the country first. Some 20,000 correspondents will now have to return to their home countries and apply for re-entry at American embassies there. The state department says it isn’t “feasible” to collect anti-terrorist information, such as fingerprints, from Washington. But the move is widely seen as hampering the ability of foreign media to cover the coming election here. And it may lead to reciprocal impediments for American journalists working abroad.
Feel safer now?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 2004