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Are the Media Out to Get Clinton?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 1998; Page D1

The press is not real popular these days. The Washington Post has been flooded with calls and letters saying, as one e-mail message put it, "Any reasonable person . . . knows the paper is conducting an intense campaign against Clinton."

"The press were not elected to anything. People are sick of it."

"Because the media has a vested interest in the outcome, people simply see their agenda as a vendetta."

"If you can't 'get' Clinton, you will have, in your own minds, failed."

There's a certain historical irony here. For a quarter-century, conservatives have castigated the "liberal media" as anti-Nixon, anti-Reagan and out of touch with average Americans.

Now many moderates and liberals are assailing the press as anti-Clinton, scandal-obsessed – and out of touch with average Americans.

No one disputes that journalists and civilians have sharply different views of the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. Less understood are the reasons behind it, rooted in a cultural divide that has been growing for decades:

Much of the public sees the media as too negative, too cynical, too enamored of the idea of bringing down politicians. Journalists see themselves as public-spirited watchdogs providing the last line of defense against government corruption (though they don't mind winning Pulitzers in the process).

The public sees the media as feasting on sex scandals for commercial reasons, to boost ratings and circulation. Journalists see themselves as holding their noses when duty requires them to report on unsavory activities in the Oval Office (although TV producers regard viewers as hypocrites, since ratings plummet when the programs switch from Lewinsky to, say, Iraq).

Most people view politicians as congenital fudgers who do what is necessary to cling to office. Journalists hold politicians to a higher standard and tend to see political struggles as a kind of morality play.

The public is generally happy with life in America, particularly the booming economy, reduced crime and the drop in the welfare rolls. Journalists are trained to look for dark clouds, to find hidden problems caused even by benign developments such as low unemployment.

Average people worry about their own lives and pay fleeting attention to the partisan warfare in Washington. Journalists wake up each morning wondering who's up and who's down in the political arena, tracking fluctuations like crazed brokers studying the Dow.

The public generally looks at extramarital affairs as a disturbing but all-too-common practice they've seen among friends, neighbors, maybe even engaged in themselves. Journalists tend to look at a politician's extracurricular activities in legalistic terms: Did he lie? Did he use government gasoline? Is he a hypocrite? What does this say about his "character"?

Much of the public sees the media as partisan if they beat up on politicians they like, which is why conservatives have long railed against coverage of Republicans. Now many progressives, who had no problem with the media investigating the heck out of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, are shocked that journalists are applying the same treatment to President Clinton. Journalists, meanwhile, see themselves as equal-opportunity harassers, scrutinizing those in power regardless of party or policies.

Clinton recently took his own whack at the press, saying those "who write about this" would like the Lewinsky scandal "to be the subject of an election in November, instead of what's going on in the lives of the American people." That may or may not prove a persuasive argument. But even after the Monica mess is a distant memory, journalists will still have to deal with public perceptions that are light-years away from their own self-image.

Calling Sid's Sources

Sidney Blumenthal has challenged any journalist with whom he had confidential dealings to blow the whistle on him.

Feeling unfairly smeared on charges of leaking the tale of Rep. Henry Hyde's 1960s affair, the White House aide wants to prove that he had no part in the story reported by Salon magazine. His attorney, William McDaniel, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week" that any reporter who says Blumenthal whispered about Hyde's sex life is hereby released from an agreement to protect Blumenthal as the source.

"Let's hear the names. . . . He's not going to be charged with anything if I can find out who's spreading these rumors about him," McDaniel said.

This is a fascinating dilemma for journalists who instinctively shield their sources; they may refuse to come forward for fear that other potential sources will view them as untrustworthy. On the other hand, several reporters have accused Blumenthal of rumor-mongering without their names attached, meaning they are serving as confidential sources for other journalists. Blumenthal says it's time to put up or shut up.

The public, meanwhile, sometimes changes its view of reporting on sexual matters depending on the political target. For all the complaints about Lewinsky coverage, a dozen people called this reporter last week to ask why The Post had "buried" the news of Hyde's long-ago affair on Page 15.

Capital Comment

While more than 100 newspapers have demanded Clinton's resignation, the Annapolis Capital has been less than glowing in its assessment of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

"Starr is evil, vicious, vindictive, sick and malevolent," said the headline on last week's editorial. This triggered a torrent of phone calls, some canceled subscriptions, and letters along these lines:

"Indefensible." "Beyond the bounds of rational commentary." "A joke." "You are so wrapped up in your own venom." "Has James Carville joined your staff?"

"Most people disagree with us," said Editor Edward Casey. "This is a very conservative county. Some people were just downright angry." At the same time, he said, "some people said it was the gutsiest editorial they've ever read in a small-town newspaper."

Oh, THAT Woman

Margo Howard, writing in Slate, wonders why the New York Times (not to mention other newspapers) insists on referring to "Monica S. Lewinsky – like maybe without the middle initial we wouldn't know who she was."

The Final Option?

Talk about a funereal press release: "President Clinton Should Follow Princess Diana Strategy to Overcome Crisis."

Really? In the handout, media expert and author Michael Levine says that Clinton should use the press as Diana did when confronted with allegations of infidelity. At least he didn't suggest that Clinton drive at breakneck speed into a tunnel.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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