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by Rob Levine
POSTED MARCH 4, 1998--It's a sure sign that the latest "Big Story" has begun to run out of legs when the media begins its ritualistic mannequin self-criticism. From ABC's Nightline, nationally, to the Star Tribune's News With a View locally, the caterwauling of mea culpas currently filling the airwaves and news pages is nothing more than a backhanded way of keeping Clinton/Lewinsky (e.g."Me-So-Horny-Gate") alive with the public during temporary lulls.

It’s not that there’s an actual conspiracy by the major media to fake their own repentance; it’s more like they’re trapped on some sort of mobius strip, first stoking the fires and creating the monster – one so big that it cannot go unexamined-- and then giving the story added weight and extending its life by turning the spotlight on themselves.

If the current breast-beating among the Punditocracy is as self-serving as it is self-critical, what might a real media mea culpa sound like? First, it would be stripped of the euphemistic language that disguises the sheer audience and money grab of the broadcast networks, newsmagazines and major newspapers. For instance, instead of hearing Ted Koppel defend the reporting of gossip and innuendo as a result of "intense competitive pressures," he might say, "We’re bringing you rumors tonight because our corporate managers are unwilling to forgo even one-cent of profits, even if it means simply pimping stories produced by other news organizations, no matter how unreliable or anonymous the sourcing of the original story."

An underlying belief of Koppel and his ilk seems to be that viewers feel their ratings-driven pain, that we believe them when they tell us it's a jungle out there --fraught with intense competitive pressures-- and somehow we pardon their flight from good news judgment.

A real mea culpa might also include some full disclosure by ABC-TV's George Will, whose puritanical vitriol has made him the self-anointed keeper of the national moral standards: "Since I've attacked the president's values, you might be amused to learn that my own domestic life was once in such shambles that wife number one threw my belongings out onto the front lawn" (and left a sign on top reading, "Take it somewhere else, buster.")

He might continue, "And as for my most recent wife, I'd also like to inform you that I argued for lower Japanese car tariffs as a commentator on ABC's This Week, never acknowledging that she was a paid lobbyist for those very same companies!"

And rather than calling on the usual suspects, a courageous examination of the media's mistakes in this affair might include the kind of biting media critics who seldom make it onto those very pages for very real censorship reasons,--an obvious, but still excluded example being Noam Chomsky, or, out-of-the mainstream pundit-watcher Eric Alterman.   That might prove to be at least as insightful as say, Eric Black's interview with right-wing media critic Brent Bozell in the Minneapolis Star Tribune's News With "The Establishment" View section, where Bozell actually made the astounding assertion that the Clinton scandal was being underplayed by the "liberal" media!

Of course no apology, however sincere, could expiate the media from their magnifying glass on the president's penis, while virtually ignoring other more important stories. (See further analysis below.) Then again, focusing as a herd on the most trivial and venal issues seems to be the one thing the big media are good at, and the one thing that assures them the big numbers they can't seem to live without.

Try the Columbia Journalism Review:

Where we went wrong.
Jules Witcover tries to find out.

Fumble in Dallas
How the Dallas Morning News lost its credibility.


Salon magazine has done a good job of covering the hype:

All the facts it's fit to omit
The New York Times has taken to reporting gossip, rumor and innuendo.

The media may be the next to have their sexual pasts exposed


*The Washington Post archives are no longer linkable, so here's an excerpt from one of Will's columns about Clinton:

"Having vulgarians like the Clintons conspicuous in government must further coarsen American life. This is already apparent in the emergence of a significant portion of the public that almost preens about supporting the Clintons because of the vulgarity beneath their pantomime of domesticity."

Will adds: "He [Clinton] has caused a pain he does not feel: The sense millions of Americans have that something precious has been vandalized. The question is, Who should come next to scrub from a revered institution the stain of the vulgarians?"