No News Is Bad News
There’s a veritable tiki bar of topics to choose from in what otherwise is one of the slowest news weeks of the year—a strawberry margarita in the form of the Enron trial verdict; two or three banana daiquiris worth of stories about the electricity rate hike and the BGE/FPL merger; a champagne cocktail of Larry Young thinking about running for the General Assembly again; a highball of 26 million U.S. vets’ personal data on a Department of Veterans Affairs employee’s stolen laptop; the sloe gin fizz of dumb cluck Congressman William Jefferson and his $90,000 safe disguised as a kitchen freezer—and here I am, reaching for the 7-year-old beer in the back of the fridge called the Clinton sex life.
It’s not just me: The New York Times last week decided, of all things, to front-page a story speculating about how often Bill and Hillary Clinton sleep with each other, because, you know, it’s important. Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline in California, a thousand dead in New Orleans, 2,000 more in Iraq, an administration with polling numbers as low as Dick Nixon’s after Alexander Butterfield spilled his guts about the tapes, and the state of the Clinton Penis (or “the Clenis,” as it’s known in the blogosphere) is serious enough to warrant Page One real estate in the so-called paper of record for the United States of America. God Bless Us, Every One.
Thankfully, we can rely on the “dean” of the Washington press corps, David Broder, to dislodge us from this fitful reverie where we are back in the horrible, horrible days of 1998, when we suffered mightily under the burden of peace and prosperity, when gasoline hovered around a dollar a gallon, the nation’s budget was balanced, and we barely missed Osama bin Laden with a cruise-missile strike. As Broder wrote last week in his column about Hillary Clinton’s speech at the National Press Club, “But the buzz in the room was not about her speech—or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit—but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning’s New York Times.” How do we manage, I ask you?
When is something news? When the Washington press—unlike any other newspaper or television media in the world, with what wag Bob Somerby calls its “Millionaire Pundit Values”—declares something news. Your average newspaper reporter in your average no-name American town makes less than a car salesman, a real-estate agent, or a grocery store manager. But in Washington, with million-dollar book contracts, insider parties, clubby dinners featuring the President of the United States, “the press” has more in common with Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling than they do with the mothers and fathers, the PTA members and soccer coaches, who lost everything when Enron went belly-up.
It’s important. David Broder said so. It’s like when all those corporate CEOs sit on all the same boards with each other and decide they all deserve high salaries because, well, they’re worth it, no matter what the company does in good times or bad. “But for all the delicacy of the treatment, the very fact that the Times had sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons’ marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One was a clear signal—if any was needed—that the drama of the Clintons’ personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president,” Broder wrote.
It’s hard to see a clearer tautology in the news business: Their sex life was once news because they were important. Now, because she is important, their sex life is now news. In what universe is it possible that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s personal life, under this tortured logic, could not be news?
Stephen Colbert went to D.C. and offended the press corps right to their faces at their annual logrolling dinner and self-congratulatory jamboree by pointing out obvious truths, truths that America found funny (one month later an audio version of the Colbert speech was still topping Apple’s iTunes Music Store) but got members of the Washington media all up in full dander. Colbert didn’t stop with a president who had so far managed to escape merciless mocking to his face, but hit a press corps who needed it badly as well.
“Here’s how it works,” Colbert said that night, “the president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction!”
Not funny, they said. How very telling that something that the Washington press doesn’t find funny still tops the charts a month later in the real world. And now, here we are in 2006, Al Gore’s in the news again, the media is back in Bill Clinton’s pants, and D.C.’s millionaire pundits find absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s like everything old really is new again.
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