A couple of weeks ago the director of the Kennedy Space Center bitterly complained about the pressure the news media had put on NASA to get on with the launch of the Challenger space shuttle. "Every time there was a delay," Richard Smith told The Washington Post, "the press would say, 'Look, there's another delay . . . here's a bunch of idiots who can't even handle a launch schedule.' was certainly right. The nagging and ridicule were merciless, unrelenting and unfair, day after day in the papers and night after night on TV. Yes, we should have been ashamed. Yes, it must have been extremely unpleasant. And yes, it was its own kind of dirty pool. But should it have entered for one second into the official calculation of when it would be safe to launch?
You can't quite tell from Smith's statement whether he is saying it did or didn't play a part: "You think that doesn't have an impact? If you think it doesn't, you're stupid." Conceivably, Smith's just saying here that the ragging humiliated NASA workers, demoralized them. But he does come close to offloading some of the blame for the launch on -- who else? -- the dear old media. I was still pondering this the other day when I heard a poignant young woman on TV describe her bout with bulimia; she was valiant and impressive, but she did attribute her ailment in part to the fact that -- you guessed it -- the media were always telling people they should be slim. I got to thinking about all the times that I as a journalist had heard official government acts that bordered on insanity and/or felony justified by a government spokesman this way: "But what would you people have said if we hadn't done something?"
What all this says to me is that in yet one more respect our fitting out as the great Satan of America is being completed: the media made me do it. It wasn't enough that we reported only the bad news, blew secrets, intruded on privacy and forgot or (worse) declined to take off our cap in the presence of our betters. We have become, as well, the Devil that didn't just tempt but actually seduced you. We are what people blame for weaknesses and failures and catastrophic lapses of judgment and integrity these days instead of "root causes," which went out with sandals and guitars. We are the new root causes. Our attention compels governments to do things they know to be risky and unwise; our revelations prompt adolescents to harbor forbidden fantasies and commit destructive acts; the celebrity we bestow entices people to terrorist crimes -- or so it is said.
Maybe you will have noted that governments have been doing imprudent things and teen- agers thinking unwholesome thoughts and brigands and bullies committing despicable acts since long before there were newscasts or editorial pages. True, since at least the lament of King David ("Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon . . .") leaders have been wishing they could put bad news off the record, and at least since Agamemnon chewed out Kalkhas, the pundit of his day ("You visionary of hell, never have I had fair play in your forecasts. Calamity is all you care about, or see . . ."), they have been complaining about their coverage. Moreover, history and literature are full of tales about people who met their doom by responding to a false report. The published account has always had its peril, and certainly in our time there has been plenty of reckless journalism. But none of this is quite the same as saying that what is blared out over the media megaphone represents either a taunt or a temptation too overpowering for the hapless victim to resist.
Actually, we who are the ones with tails and horns in this tableau should probably be grateful for our new opprobrium and take comfort from it. For we have become a great intellectual convenience, a national treasure, something indispensable for those who get into trouble, which is of course practically everyone. So we are safe. "Media" is a plural form and you are supposed to say media "are," yet I can't help thinking of it in the singular, since that's the way most people conceive it: as a huge, intrusive, lumbering, amorphous and amoral beast heaving around the national landscape and despoiling it, always a source of sorrow and a primary contributor to the downfall of whatever we are deploring today. I need hardly point out that none of this either addresses or excuses our true faults, which, though large, remain irrelevant to our usefulness as a blame bag.
You need to understand that this rap against us is quite different from the more common, old-fashioned complaint that we are always printing things that cause national embarrassment. The science writer John Noble Wilford cites a wonderful remark by a 19th-century paleontologist in extenuation of his going to the press with complaints about the ethics of a rival: "When a wrong is to be righted, the press is the best and most Christian medium of doing it. It replaces the old time shot gun & bludgeon & is a great improvement." This is what people used to say about the electric chair, too: as punishment went, it was humane. But what is different now is that exposure to ridicule or pressure from the press is regarded by people in our P.R.-obsessed society not as a lesser threat than that of death, but as more or less the equivalent of it. Thus the abandonment of sense and principle. The alternative was extinction: the media made me do it.
There is, to be sure, a notable exception. Ronald Reagan does his share of griping about the press, and he also has been known to yield to insurmountable political opposition. But, importantly, he has built his career precisely by daring to hold out against overwhelming press admonitions and advice. From budgets to Bitburg and back again, time after time, he has withstood media derision and imprecations and also our moral certainty that he will fail if he doesn't change his tune. Not always, but usually, he prevails. It seems as though the Devil doesn't make him do anything he doesn't want to. Other blamers and hand-wringers take note: it may be the secret of his success.