Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dog the Wag

By Jim Hanas

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

No pundit will miss the opportunity to wear out the art-imitates-life-imitates-art saw that the latest round of White House scandal inspires, falling as it does on the heels of the movie Wag the Dog. The movie features presidential-fixer Robert De Niro enlisting movie director Dustin Hoffman to “produce” a war that will distract the public from an embarrassing sex scandal in the White House. While gawking at the similarities with what the duller members of the press are quickly dubbing “Zipper-gate” is tempting, it unfortunately misses the point.

The public is being distracted, but not by the White House.

Every since the the press caught Gary Hart frolicking with Donna Rice, the definition of a political “scandal” has gradually widened to include more and more minutiae about public officials’ private lives. Until now, however, there has at least been dissension in the ranks of the national media from those who were skeptical of the press’ increasingly unfettered prying. Not so with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

Last week, NPR correspondent Mara Liasson observed that there was no sense among the White House press corps that they were pursuing a frivolous story with a vigor out of proportion to its significance. In other words, the journalistic trend that began with Hart aboard Monkey Business has finally reached maturity. What was once a questionable news-coverage decision has become an article of journalistic common sense.

What has steeled the press in its resolve to scrutinize the story from all angles are the possible legal implications. Obstruction of justice, as the talking heads never tire of pointing out, was the charge that led to Nixon’s resignation. The constant comparison reveals the loss of perspective the last decade of scandal-hunger has brought to the discussion of national issues. While the media and the formal prescriptions of law – for which obstruction of justice is obstruction of justice, no matter what is obscured – cannot seem to grasp the distinction, it should be clear that all cover-ups are not equal. Nixon, after all, tried to cover up attempts to subvert a national election. And for more than a decade, the U.S. suffered sitting presidents at least tangentially involved in subverting the Constitution by funneling aid to the Contras. By comparison, the question of whether Bill Clinton did or didn’t diddle Ms. Lewinsky should seem frivolous to at least some members of the national press, contrary to Liasson’s observation.

While the media and the mechanical mandates of law seem helpless to make the distinction, there’s strong evidence that the public can. A 1997 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the public believe television news unnecessarily invades people’s privacy. The number was only slightly lower for print outlets.

In fact, one of the most striking things about this week’s coverage has been how much at odds it is with the public’s wishes. Not that it’s the news media’s job to “give the people what the want”– to the contrary, they should give people what they need – but the defense of scandal-mongering is invariably that the public demands it.

The opinion polls that have occasionally squirmed into breaks in the action, however, tell a different story. A majority (54 percent) of those polled by Dateline NBC said the press was giving the story too much coverage, even as the news magazine devoted most of an hour to it. But nowhere was the divide between press and public more evident than on Friday’s NBC Nightly News. “If the charges are true, many believe he should be impeached,” Tom Brokaw intoned, narrating the results of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The graphic told a different story, however, with 46 percent saying Clinton should not be impeached even if the allegations are true, and 42 percent (“many” according to Brokaw’s gloss) saying he should be, with the remainder undecided. The same poll revealed that the president still enjoyed a 61 percent approval rating, despite the relentless media onslaught.

Weekend polls were more ambiguous. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll gave the president a 58 percent approval rating and showed an even split on the issue of whether he should be impeached if all allegations are true. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had tilted against Clinton over the weekend, with a majority (57 percent) saying he should be impeached if all allegations are true. Of course, after days of saturation with the story, slides in the polls, even if conclusive, should come as no surprise. Ads during the Super Bowl cost $1.3 million for a reason.

So why does the press continue to play “dog the wag” despite public ambivalence toward the story and its near lack of political implications beyond those caused by the media coverage itself? Lazy reporting is one reason. Compared to the inner workings of the stock exchange or the finer points of trade policy – issues that, get this, actually affect the lives of Americans – “doing it” is a concept that’s much easier to communicate to a mass audience.

The other reason is that – despite its raciness – the story is entirely inoffensive. Between the publicly traded companies – Westinghouse, GE, Disney, Time-Warner – that today own the major news outlets and the big advertisers that support national news operations, a large number of news stories are in effect stunted in national discussions, among them defense contracting, the stock market, industrial damage to the environment, and the growing wage-gap between CEOs and their employees. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair doesn’t touch even one of them, and is therefore perfect for outlets owned and sustained by companies with defense contracts, publicly traded stock, industrial interests, and high-paid CEOs. In short, it appears hard-hitting while eclipsing issues of greater importance and relevance.

So, even as the U.S. inches closer to military confrontation with Iraq and Wag The Dog becomes the prophetic metaphor of the day, the real-life plot actually runs the other way around. Rather than a White House-fabricated war designed to distract the media from a scandal, it features a media-abetted scandal distracting the public (and the White House, and the media itself) from more substantive social and policy issues. Unfortunately, this plot is institutional rather than personal, which makes it difficult to cast.

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