The Media Story Behind The Jokeline
By Arianna Huffington
July 29, 1996
"If you use this to take Freddy Picker down," says one of the more colorful characters in "Primary Colors," "you should die slowly from cancer -- unless you can look yourself in the mirror and say there wasn't a moment in your life when you didn't do the wrong thing, when you didn't get a little mixed up, head off on the wrong path. My grandmother, who came down here from cane-cuttin' country, had this thing she'd say: 'Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.'"
Joe Klein, who wrote those words, is a sinner with a future. He may have resigned from his CBS job and been packed off to the woodshed by Newsweek, but he will come out of this experience not only a few million richer but hopefully less arrogant and with a deeply personal understanding of the most fundamental problems with American journalism.
The first problem -- clearly exemplified by the coverage of the Klein imbroglio -- is the propensity to allow any unpleasant revelation about public figures to eclipse everything else until all that is good about them shrinks to nothing.
Klein's defiant lying to protect his anonymity was unquestionably wrong. But can anything in his behavior, other than runaway journalistic hyperbole, justify New York magazine's cover line: "Is Joe Klein Evil?"
Such sanctimonious judgments are fueled by the journalistic corps' perception of itself as entirely virtuous. What Klein wrote about the Clintons in his Newsweek column in January applies equally well to the media: "There is a need to be perceived as pure. They defend their virtue against all reason; they never inhale."
The public -- and this is the second problem with American journalism -- does not share the media's high opinion of themselves. A recent national poll by the Roper Center showed that only 10 percent of Americans have a "great deal of confidence" in the media. Long gone are the balmy days when a Gallup poll found that 51 percent rated the media as trustworthy.
So it is particularly bizarre to read all the apocalyptic attacks on Klein: "He hurts the business of journalism. ... It grants a weapon to the enemies of the press. ... This is a black week for our profession." Precisely what sterling industry reputation do the media worthies think has been tarnished?
Much more important, if, as is the case, the tarnishing has been going on for a while, how have they, collectively and individually, contributed to that process?
In fact, if half the outrage unleashed on Klein were directed instead at the causes really eroding the public's trust in the media -- cynicism, scandal-mongering, a focus on troublemakers rather than problem-solvers -- then something might actually be done to reverse the disturbing trend.
For now, it is much easier to succumb to the third major problem with the American media -- the pack mentality. Journalists monitor the emerging "consensus" on any given issue as anxiously as designers watch competitors' hemlines.
It took less than 24 hours for the herd of independent minds to reach a consensus on Klein: He was a blight on journalism and had to be drummed out of town to protect journalists' virginal image of themselves.
What such a pristine self-image does not allow is a more unsavory explanation for the shrillness of the Klein-bashing -- good, old-fashioned envy. One of the few remaining taboos in modern journalistic analysis is a discussion of envy as a motive. In his classic book, "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior," the German sociologist Helmut Schoeck traces envy -- through philosophy, literature, and politics -- as a fundamental problem of human existence, much more prevalent than we recognize. That's partly because private envy can conceal itself in the guise of concern for the public good -- in Klein's case, the journalistic common good.
Envy, ubiquitous but camouflaged, is always most keenly felt toward our peers. Many of the journalists demanding Klein's head on a platter have had careers on parallel tracks with him. Some may even have unfinished political novels in their bottom drawer. As Schoeck puts it: "We envy those whose possessions or achievements are a reflection on our own."When the dust has settled and the moral indignation spent, what we are left with is a parable of a talented journalist who takes the wrong turn, and a frenzied mob ready to stone the evildoer, never minding their own glass houses. A lot of angry journalists are unwilling to admit, even to themselves, that "There but for the grace of a little more talent, a little more imagination and a lot more hard work, go I."
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
Find this article at: