Beat the Press

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – September 22, 1997

Beat the Press

Fear and self-loathing in the newsroom.

 BEGINNING IN THE MID-SIXTIES, the angry, guilt-tripping, sanctimo-nious news media drove Americans into a state of confusion and self-flagellation, a kind of national nervous breakdown. During the eighties, we finally liberated ourselves from collective anguish and, by golly, restored the national self-esteem. Now, however, comes the perfectly symmetrical coda to this thirty-year Zeitgeist swing: an angry, guilt-tripping, sanctimonious citizenry is driving the news media into a state of confusion and self-flagellation, a kind of professional nervous breakdown. Every magazine and newspaper, it seems, suddenly wants to be something it is not.

The media’s identity crises started getting out of hand last month, after an article in Vanity Fair alleged that Rudy Giuliani was having an adulterous affair and that New York newspapers were, in effect, covering it up. The response was an outbreak of hysterical disingenuousness. The gossip-mad New York Observer viciously ridiculed the magazine for publishing such . . . gossip. The Post and the Daily News ran page-one stories about the story, attacking Vanity Fair for trafficking in scurrilous gossip worthy of some . . . tabloid.

“I think I would not have had the confidence to hire Pete Hamill four years ago,” Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the News, told me last spring. “Now I can deal with an editor much more easily and much more confidently.” He also had the confidence, it turned out, to fire Hamill after nine months on the job. Hamill got the boot at least in part because Zuckerman wants more gossip and celebrity coverage in the paper than Hamill provided. He wants his tabloid, in other words, to be more like a tabloid—specifically, he says, more like the London Daily Mail. (Now that Hamill is gone, Zuckerman’s most celebrated editor is James Fallows, of U.S. News & World Report and journalism’s leading anti-junk-journalism crusader.)

Twenty-four hours after Hamill was fired for not being tabloidy enough—“What a fuckin’ year!” he said to me, laughing, a few days later—Michael Kelly was fired as editor of The New Republic, for running the sort of magazine that his former boss calls “scandal-hungry.” Kelly’s tenure was much longer than Hamill’s, lasting a good ten months. Martin Peretz, the owner of The New Republic and a close friend of Al Gore, has moved to the right over the past two decades, but Kelly’s antagonism to Clinton and Gore provoked an identity crisis—he realized that he’s a liberal after all.

During the last year or so, as the circulation of the News declined, the circulation of its tabloid competitor, the Post, increased. “We’ve tried to establish the paper as a must-read among the upmarket,” David Yelland, the Post’s deputy editor, told me. They’ve succeeded: it bothers Zuckerman that the unapologetically non-nutritious Post, with its four daily gossip columns (the News has only one), is the tabloid of choice for Manhattan’s smart set. Tabloid entertainment isn’t usually associated with factual accuracy, but at the Post, Yelland insists, that has changed. “The standards are much higher than they were in the eighties,” he says. “As regards accuracy, I would quite happily compare it favorably to any other paper.”

The editor of the National Enquirer had been undergoing a public identity crisis for months. During the last two weeks, Steve Coz’s backpedalling apologias have been almost as ubiquitous as the attacks on him by members of “the entire celebrity community,” in celebrity-community spokesperson Fran Drescher’s phrase. “We didn’t want to be smeared in that backlash,” Coz said after the death of the Princess of Wales, “and unfortunately that’s what’s happening.” In London last week, three downmarket dailies, the Mirror, the Sun, and the Star, also disavowed tabloidism as it was practiced up to the morning of August 31st.

Yet when journalists really do demonstrate restraint, and elect not to cover a story, they can get whacked just as smartly as when they rake muck. The press thought it was being decorous and serious-minded when it neglected to give much coverage to Paula Jones’s sexual allegations against President Clinton—but then the tide turned, and the reticence was deemed a pernicious form of class bias. During the last Presidential campaign, after the editor of the Washington Post chose not to publish an interview with Bob Dole’s former mistress, the mistress’s story came out anyway, and the Post editor was accused of having let his own messy marital problems influence the editorial decision.

Still, James Fallows wrote last week in U.S. News apropos Diana, “The public wants to see evidence of the internal struggle. They want to see . . . reporters wrestling with whether it’s necessary to invade someone’s privacy or damage someone’s reputation.” The wrestling does occur. Restraint is shown. By its nature, however, it is ordinarily invisible to the public. Last year, the school-age child of a major American political figure running for reëlection got himself into some mischief—the kind of mischief that would have made a titillating news story, and probably dog the kid for years to come. The story was verifiable, known to reporters at Time, Newsweek, and New York (of which I was then editor), presumably among other publications, and yet no one ran with it—in part, to be sure, because of personal pleas from the major American political figure. Tough, market-driven editors and journalists, acting independently, found themselves ceding a distinct zone of privacy to a public figure. I found this uniform display of media discretion amazing. As the summer ends, I’ll admit that I also find it heartening.