It is with some hesitation that I come to the defense of the press, in part because I am a member of it and in part because it is so often indefensible. But of late the press has been taking a bum rap: It has been accused, by various personages in the political arena, of abusing its First Amendment privileges because it refuses to accept without question the falsehoods that politicians tell about themselves. This is a preposterous allegation; for the press to take it lying down would be, in and of itself, an abrogation of responsibility.
Press-bashing has always been a useful ingredient in political rhetoric; reporters and politicians alike understand that it is part of the game, and play their positions in the game accordingly. But what is happening now is not mere press-bashing; it is a deliberate, cynical effort to redraw the rules of the game in hopes of getting the public to detest the press not merely when it takes an adversarial position but, more importantly, when it fails to collaborate with politicians in their deceits.
"Deceit" is, if anything, a charitable word for the wool that certain politicians have tried to pull over the public's eyes in the dreary presidential campaign of 1988. Gary Hart tried to lie his way out of disclosures about a compromising relationship with Donna Rice; Joseph Biden tried to lie about his academic record and his plagiarism; and now we learn that Pat Robertson, he of the pious mien, has told less than the truth about the date of his marriage, his military record, his graduate school studies and his connection with a Virginia bank.
Robertson said of reports about these distortions: "I think that to intrude into a man's family life and to try and hurt a person's wife and children is outrageous ... My life has been filled with enough honors and distinctions that I have plaques covering an entire wall. I don't need to embellish anything ... and I have never done that." For the press to "dig aimlessly into a man's past," he said, is "over the line": "If someone is carrying on an affair today, and doing it on a repeat basis, then that is something different."
There is just enough truth in this line of reasoning to lend it plausibility and to make it appealing to Robertson's supporters -- or Hart's, or Biden's. The "wild oats" episode in which Robertson conceived his first child months before his marriage is a matter of no consequence to anyone in his right mind; not merely does it happen all the time, but it is quite understandable that Robertson, a conservative man living in a conservative part of the country, would try to keep quiet about it. Ditto for Biden's cheating infraction in law school; he is hardly the first whose honor briefly swayed under academic pressure, and he subsequently performed to his professors' satisfaction.
But these relatively minor offenses are not, in fact, what the press has been trying to bring to light. What has concerned the press, and what should concern any ordinary citizen, is the petty deceit by which these prominent politicians have tried to explain these episodes away. The problem isn't the misadventures of the past, it's the prevarications of the present.
If George Washington couldn't tell a lie, then by contrast too many of today's more ambitious politicians seem incapable of telling the truth. Their lies aren't of the cosmic variety, but of a triviality that raises serious questions about their most basic integrity. They're telling the kind of lies that unscrupulous and/or desperate people put on job applications -- the kind of lies that are meant to embellish one's credentials but that actually call into question one's character. If you can't trust a person on the little things, what are you to expect when the big ones roll along?
Shouldn't it be a matter of deep public concern that within the political community the publication of information about politicians' lies is met not with demands for the whole truth but with charges that the press is -- to borrow Robertson's words -- "outrageous" and "reprehensible"? Does the public really believe, as Robertson and Biden and others apparently do, that a little white lie told in the service of political ambition is no lie at all?
Surely the electorate has not fallen for so shabby a piece of sophistry as that. Surely the press is not alone in believing that a politician must be held as accountable for statements about his personal history as for those about his political agenda. Surely the ethical standards of American public life have not sunk so low that we can now look a lie straight in the eye and pronounce it a truth.
Yet that is what Robertson would have us do, what Biden tried to do until he saw the folly of his ways and recanted, what Hart in his Nixonian withdrawal address attempted to bring off: the legitimization of falsehood. Having failed to make a plausible case for their topsy-turvy ethics, these politicians then responded by blaming the press. It may be the ultimate evasion of responsibility.
To which the predictable response is: Who are the members of the press to be judging the morals of politicians or anyone else? This question, which is itself an evasion, merits two answers. The first is that of course the press is no moral exemplar. The boys on the bus are as susceptible to temptation as the people flying first class, and as likely to succumb to it; if they gave a morals test for journalism, the news rooms of America would be filled with empty desks. I'd be the first to agree that when the press goes off on a moral toot, it is not a pretty sight; hypocrisy never is pretty.
But the second part of the answer is that this is entirely irrelevant. Not merely do we live in an imperfect world in which imperfect people -- consider, if you will, the Senate Judiciary Committee -- are called to pass judgment on others no more perfect than they, but what really counts is that the press is not, in fact, passing moral judgment. The press is reporting, pure and simple; there may be a moral to be drawn from the information it imparts, but that conclusion is in the mind of the beholder rather than the words of the messenger.
Certainly it is true that the role of the press in political affairs has become larger, with the advent of television and the disappearance of the smoke-filled room; it is equally true that the press must never grow comfortable or complacent in this role, but must be constantly alert for abuses or misuses of its heightened influence. But that is one thing, and silently condoning the duplicity of candidates for office is quite another; not merely is it in the public interest that these lies be exposed, it is in the interest of honest politicians as well -- and there are more of them than the presidential candidates might lead one to believe.