June 01, 2006

Grey Lady Down

In my May 17, 2006 post entitled Man Bites Gator, I wrote about the tabloidization of the 24-hour cable "news" networks. Now it is the newspapers' turn. The vehicle is Hillary Clinton and her marriage to Bill Clinton.

As you may have seen, the media frenzy over Hillary Clinton's possible Presidential aspirations has begun, and it isn't pretty. The 2008 election is nearly two and one half years away, and Hillary has not even hinted that she is interested in running (I can think of numerous reasons why she won't win the Democratic nomination even if she does run), but that has not stopped the wild speculation and tawdry commentary. The New York Times, the Grey Lady herself, weighed in with a front page, top left column one (a newspaper's most prime real estate) article on May 23 entitled "For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives." The article was written by Patrick Healy, and was neither grey nor ladylike. Coincidentally, just yesterday I was reading the screenplay for the movie "There's Something About Mary." In it, there's a sleazy insurance investigator brilliantly played by Matt Dillon. He is described as looking and acting more like a used car salesman than insurance man, and, using an arsenal of devious dirty tricks, he sleazes and scams his way, temporarily, into Mary's heart. His name: Patrick Healy.

In his Times article, Healy describes the Clinton's marriage as one of time spent apart. Healy writes, "Nights out find him [Bill Clinton] zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle, or hitting parties and fund-raisers in Manhattan." Healy even mentions another woman, in the following innuendo-filled passage whose logic adheres like sawdust: "Because of Mr. Clinton's behavior in the White House, tabloid gossip sticks to him like iron filings to a magnet. Several prominent New York Democrats, in interviews, volunteered that they became concerned last year over a tabloid photograph showing Mr. Clinton leaving B.L.T. Steak in Midtown Manhattan late one night after dining with a group that included Belinda Stronach, a Canadian politician. The two were among roughly a dozen people at a dinner, but it still was enough to fuel coverage in the gossip pages."

Notice what Healy has done: First, Bill Clinton goes to dinner with a dozen people, including a female Canadian politician. Ok, sounds normal so far. Then, Clinton leaves the restaurant after dinner. Hmm, that's usually what one does after dinner. Healy doesn't say that Clinton left with a woman, alone or even in a group. But the Times reports that a "tabloid photograph" fueled speculation in the "gossip pages." A photograph of what? Speculation about what? In effect, the Times legitimizes as real news what was previously limited to the gossip pages and the tabloids -- a discussion of the private nature of the Clintons' marriage.

Then what happens is that other legitimate news outlets report on the Times story, hiding behind the cover that, since the Times has reported it, it's a legitimate news story. This is precisely what has happened on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Chris has been obsessed with the Clinton's marriage ever since the Times story was published. For example, today Chris's leadoff question to former Clinton Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman had to do with the Times article and the state of the Clinton's marriage. A few minutes later, Matthews asked the same questions of Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Chris' comment to Ms. Rosen said it all: "This isn't the first time a story was made tabloid." Then he said, "This wasn't fed by the Republicans, this was the Times' decision." To Republican strategist Ed Rollins, Matthews said "The New York Times ran this story, they opened the gates." Yesterday, Matthews opened the program with Hillary Clinton advisor Howard Wolfson. Matthews led off the questioning of Wolfson with reference to the Times article, and insinuated that this is what voters care about primarily. Matthews did the same thing to another Howard, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, as well as Matthews' other guests, a few days earlier.
This obsesssion has superceded Chris's prior obsession with Hillary Clinton's Presidential chances. At least the prior story, if a bit premature, was a true political story worthy of Hardball.

This repeating of tabloid and gossip stories by major media outlets happened to Bill Clinton before. Who remembers Gennifer Flowers? During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Flowers admitted to being approached by agents of the Republican party to go public on an alleged affair with then-governor Clinton. Flowers did so in a front page story in the National Enquirer accompanied by a press conference. Major newspapers and television networks then ran the story, saying that they were merely reporting what was already out there. This time, however, the journalistic standard has been lowered even further by the Times article, since (1) Hillary Clinton is not an announced Presidential candidate; (2) there is no allegation in the Times article or the tabloid stories that Hillary has committed any wrongdoing or done anything that can be regarded as a character issue that might be relevant to voters; and (3) there has been no press conference to air this sleazy, salacious gossip.

When MSNBC, and even the New York Times, rationalize that they are merely playing to the public taste, that was the excuse the Roman emperors gave for staging gladiator contests and lions eating Christians in the Colosseum. This only leads to a downward spiral of our media and our society. Call me a mamby-pamby, a Bill Bennett without the gambling habit, but I believe this lowering of cultural standards, as reflected in the media, bodes ill for our future. Of course, perceived public appetite for sleaze and salaciousness fuels the media coverage in question. As is the case with our politicians, we get the media we deserve. But surely there are enough tabloids and gossip columns that one can read or view for tawdry stories of the marital situation of public figures. It is a sad day indeed when the purely private marital life of a public official makes it to the top of the front page of the New York Times.


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