Fellow hacks, scribblers, on-air talents, talking heads and pundits, may we speak about a delicate subject? To wit: Why does everyone loathe us so? Because, my little preciouses, we are so loathable.
Last week, a Boston television interviewer named Andy Hiller surprised Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush with a pop quiz comprising, as Hiller put it, "four questions of four leaders in four hot spots." Hiller asked Bush to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. They are, as you doubtless know: Aslan Maskhadov, Lee Teng-hui, Pervez Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee. And, as you doubtless also know, Bush couldn't answer the questions, scoring only a partial hit for identifying the president of Taiwan as "Lee."
Media wits leapt to mock Bush for his ignorance, and media thinkers leapt to opine that his inability to name names on the spot was reminiscent of Ted Kennedy's disastrous 1980 failure to give Roger Mudd a coherent explanation as to why he wished to be president. Yes, said we chin-pullers, this was a gaffe with legs, one that would resonate.
Hiller's stunt does indeed resonate, but not in quite the way we would have it. It resonates because it demonstrates a range of the reasons why the public increasingly regards the media--us--with contempt.
(1) We are so relentlessly mindless. Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think. Every day, journalists go out into a world of confusion and chaos, and every day they are obliged to present the passing confusion in what appears to be order. It is nearly impossible to do this honestly--to think your way fresh through each day's events, day after day. So, for survival's sake, most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day's events.
Thus, the Hiller interview is played big because it fits--neatly, mindlessly--into a template of the campaign, which is itself a subset of an older template: Bush is a know-nothing; Republicans are mostly know-nothings (except for Rockefeller Republicans, who are mostly dead).
(2) We are so blatantly unfair. Almost everyone knows that they could not, out of the blue and with the cameras rolling, dredge up the answers to Hiller's questions. This includes most if not all of Bush's campaign rivals. (Only the campaign of Al Gore, the call-on-me candidate, was quick to say their teacher's pet would have aced the quiz.)
When Hiller tried to sandbag Bill Bradley with a similar test, Bradley had the good sense to refuse to play. Smart move. But it raises a question: Could Bradley have passed the quiz? If flunking this sort of test matters about Bush, doesn't it also matter about the other candidates? Shouldn't the press force Bradley and the rest to take pop quizzes too? That won't happen, because this whole exercise was really just about getting one man: Bush.
(3) We are such awful frauds. Among the very many people who could not have answered Andy Hiller's quiz is, you may be sure, Andy Hiller. Indeed, not one reporter in a hundred (not one local television reporter in 500) would have fared better than Bush.
Even media's foreign policy thinkers couldn't pass Hiller's test. The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, in a splendid bit of public service, hit a range of media and foreign policy figures with a more elaborate, and funnier, version of the Hiller quiz. Most, like Bradley, wisely refused to play.
"No way, man," said Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol. Hertz-berg describes Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a perpetual dispenser of op-ed wisdom, as "hit-and-miss on the countries" (Just curious, but exactly how many hits and how many misses for this sachem of the foreign policy media establishment?). William F. Buckley gracefully evaded. The only press heavy who scored impressively was Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland, who regards the SALT II treaty as beach reading.
Bush pointed out to Hiller that he, too, could not answer these sorts of questions. "I would say to that," said the smug little man on the safe side of the camera, "I'm not running for president." Yes, that is always our answer. We tell the public that the press is so important to a properly constructed democracy that it constitutes an implicit fourth estate of government. And the sole, vital function of this estate is to inform the electorate.
Clearly, then, ignorance of the basic facts of the world is a far more serious failing in a journalist than in a presidential candidate. I'm afraid we're just going to have to let Leslie Gelb go.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.