Respond to this Article September 1991

Is It Any of Your Business?

What the press should and shouldn't tell you.

By Marjorie Williams

Pity the politician, beset by sharks and vultures, fanatical reformers and a moralistic press. For at least a decade, it's been open season on anyone foolish enough to run for office or serve in government--an age of "mindless cannibalism," in the words of former speaker of the House and onetime entree Jim Wright.

Scandal
by Suzanne Garment
Random House, $12.00

Feeding Frenzy
by Larry J. Sabato
Free Press, $18.00

Or so say Suzanne Garment and Larry J. Sabato, lending their very different voices to the chorus of analysts who have lately specialized in second thoughts about the cloud of scandal that enshrouded the Reagan administration and then drifted down Pennsylvania Avenue to engulf the House leadership and the Keating Five. Their books both argue that the ethical, financial, political, and sexual scandals of recent years represent a kind of hysteria, and that Americans in general and journalists in particular need to reevaluate how far they are willing to go in judging the human creatures elected to govern us.

But the books offer very different explanations. Sabato's, devoted almost exclusively to press coverage of political scandal, simply argues that the press has become too prosecutorial, too herd-like, and insufficiently respectful of politicians' private lives: "The press has become obsessed with gossip rather than governance; it prefers to employ titillation rather than scrunity; as a result, its political coverage produces trivialization rather than enlightenment."

Garment makes a more sophisticated, more provocative argument that the entire political culture of America has shifted so that its components perpetually collude to produce scandals--among other things, as a distraction from having to produce intelligible policy. It's not that politicians have become more corrupt, she writes; it's that we have become a nation of goody-goodies. "Today's myriad scandals come in much larger part from the increased enthusiasm with which the political system now hunts evil in politics and the ever-growing efficiency with which our modern scandal production machine operates."

She details this apparatus at length, including the investigative and prosecutory machinery within the government: the Office of the Independent Counsel, the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, the ever-swelling oversight committee staffs on Capitol Hill, and the agencies' inspectors general. Outside, the public advocacy groups have grown adept at feeding journalists leads and information; the post-Watergate rules and regulations police everything from political contributions to revolving-door employment to financial disclosure. New mores allow reporters to cover issues and events formerly off limits--or to cover familiar areas of politicians' lives with a new kind of skepticism.

Days of the jackals

The crux of Garment's argument is that each of these new inventions or developments feeds the others to create a vicious cycle of perceived corruption, voter mistrust, and ever-closer regulation:

Out of distate with the grubby realities of democratic politics, recent reformers managed to weaken those centers of power, like political parties, where much of the fundraising and favor-giving in politics once took place. Today, such activities must be more closely attended to by individual officeholders themselves. At the same time as this change was taking place, the same anti-political distaste brought about new rules making all the wheeling and dealing much more visible than ever before. We are now given a more detailed view of our officials doing decreasingly exalted things. The distate thus increases, as does the pressure for more reform.

It is, of course, possible to point to reforms that boomeranged. The story hegemony of PACs, which was the result of post-Watergate campaign fundraising reforms, stands as the best testament to the law of unintended consequences. And yes, there have been examples of officials abused or mistreated in the course of ethics investigations. Garment is also on the mark in arguing that we are too quick to criminalize anything that smacks of political scandal. We don't always serve ourselves best by trying to nail a problem's creators: Once the logic and rules of criminal procedure are put in place, they can crowd out attempts to address what is more fundamentally a program flaw or a policy question.

But Garment goes far, far beyond where her evidence takes her into a realm where there seem to be no public misdeeds alarming enough to justify vigilance. Officials are never responsible for their acts; they are driven to them by prosecutorial do-gooders, or they are being held to preposterous new ethical standards. As an example, Garment writes that "even Clark Clifford, whose political perspicacity and survival skills were admired in Washington for some 40 years, has had the end of his career marred by a post-Watergate scandal," as if this were irrefutable proof of how absurdly picky Washington has become, rather than the fruit of Clifford's manifestly bad behvior in fronting for a shady international bank.

"In fact," Garment writes, "the focus on specific prohibitory rules may make us less rather than more able to control the offending behavior." What she means is that, in the good old days, politicians controlled themselves; today their moral clarity has broken down under the weight of all these pettifogging rules.

Standards really have changed in Washington, in a lot of different areas. It's a mistake--which both these authors make in their dissimilar ways--to codify these shifts as a single political sea change, brought about by the sudden dominance of one faction, one public mood, or one fashion in press coverage.

Sabato, a political scientist to the bone, draws up somber charts and graphs tabulating 36 events that exemplify the "frenzy phenomenon." They range from Watergate to Chappaquiddick, from Edmund Muskie's tears to Jimmy Carter's brush with the killer rabbit--events that really can't be meaningfully examined as a single phenomenon. Sabato writes from the trap of considering all reportage an exercise in "perception," as if the events he describes had no reality at all separate from their coverage.

Lest mine seem a knee-jerk reaction by one of the press corps jackals. I must grant Sabato some of his specifics. It is horrible to have a mob of journalists camped out in your begonias. Yes, journalists too often rely on group instinct to set their narrative direction during a scandal-in-progress. And he quite rightly criticizes the prss when it prints or broadcasts unfounded rumors on the grounds that the existence of the rumor is itself news because everybody--that is, in the community of a thousand or so people who make up insider politics--is talking about it.

That said, Sabato, like Garment, leaves himself open to the supposition that he is writing in service of nostalgia--of a profound preference for the old ways Washington did its business.

Sabato betrays himself when he sighs that persecution by the press has gotten so bad that some pols are forced to consult with media heavy weights in order to gauge their liabilities. He cites the example of a prospective 1988 presidential candidate who approached Jack Nelson, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, to ask, in Nelson's words, "how long I thought the statute of limitations was for marital infidelity. I told him I didn't know, but I didn't think [the limit] had been reached in his case!" Sabato advances this anecdote in sympathy for the unnamed pol, who eventually decided not to run--and passes without comment over its far more extraordinary testimony: that pols and big-wheel journalists still see themselves more as cooperative peers than as people with distinct, often competing missions.

Sabato advises journalists to "take to heart the delightful slogan of one of their most marvelous institutions, the Gridiron Club: 'Singe but never burn.' Since 1885 the annual Gridiron dinner has good-naturedly roasted president and press alike, relaxing the tensions that inevitably exist between reporters and politicians. A little of the Gridiron spirit of tolerance . . . could be usefully applied to coverage the year 'round." The Gridiron dinner is, in fact, a festival of mutual stroking, dedicated to the proposition that politicians and the people who cover them are all members of the same jolly, inside-the-beltway fraternity.

My observation, in five years of Washington journalism, has been that the major media more often betray news consumers through excessive coziness, power lust, and the simple eagerness to be liked than through the will to drive their hatchets into the powerful men and women they cover. In Washington reporting it isn't true, as Sabato claims, that all the laurels go to the writer who kills the king; success comes more easily to the one who befriends him.

Inside outing

If all the changes examined in these two books--the sunshine laws, the more expansive contemporary definition of government ethics, the press's greater efforts to delineate character--can be boiled down to any one observable theme, it is that Americans no longer trust a political elite to regulate their affairs behind closed doors. You can argue all you want about the roots and reasons: Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, the sexual revolution, the anti-authoritarian spirit of the sixties, the collapse of the political parties. But rather than see the changes as a sign of a sad diminution of trust in our institutions, one could choose to value them, as well as the increasing diversity they reflect among the people running, governing, and reporting on our affairs.

This is where Garment comes in again, brandishing an unacknowledged ideology. She has an assiduous compassion for the families of Reagan-era officials who became the "victims" of scandal, but she has only contempt for young men and women who come to Washington--usually for far less money--to agitate for good government. To suggest that the entire public advocacy corps in Washington (what she calls "the Ralph Nader conglomerate") comes here simply to delegitimize government is to turn common sense on its head: In Garment's world, the desire to strengthen government accountability is an act of radical cynicism.

To be sure, the press today has far greater discretion--which is to say power--in deciding what people should know about their leaders. And while the media do not exercise that power with perfect judgment, assigning this function to the media comes at least one step closer to letting citizens decide what they care about.

In his famous invitation to "follow me around," Gary Hart gave the media a wonderful fig leaf. Although The Miami Herald was already staking out his town house the day the Hart interview was published in The New York Times Magazine, it gave reporters a retroactive justification: Hart forced us to write about his sex life. But I do not believe we needed his invitation. As Suzannah Lessard persuasively argued in this magazine 10 years ago about Ted Kennedy, a man's apparently compulsive womanizing might say something important--if not to person A, then to person B or person C--about a man's character. At any rate, everyone should have the right to decide for himself.

That's not to say that everything a journalist learns should go into the paper. To return to the example of the politician who sought Jack Nelson's advice: Unless I am mistaken about the man's identity, every political journalist in Washington is aware of him, and of the rumor that he decided against running in 1988 at least in part because of a long-standing affair. No one has printed this information, partly for the good reason that, to most of the journalists, it is only a rumor. But there are two other reasons why a journalist who had this information as a rock-solid fact probably wouldn't print it, at least not now: 1) because the affair in question reportedly is or was a single relationship of long duration, not part of a pattern that might indicate compulsive behavior or habitual deceit; and 2) because the man decided against running for president, and there exists an informal rule that politicians on the next-lower rung of the political ladder--senators, governors, members of the House--can expect more privacy than presidential candidates; in other words, that the surrender of privacy should be proportionate to the extent of the power a politician aspires to hold over our lives.

These are both rules of thumb. (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer would have qualified for protection under the first rule, but not the second. John F. Kennedy would have qualified under neither.) The easier case is the politician whose extramarital sex life has some illegal or dangerous aspect (Buz Lukens or, again and always, JFK, who became involved with mafia moll Judith Campbell Exner) or clearly bears some relation to the job. Take, for example, a member of Congress sleeping with a staff member who is paid by the taxpayer (Wayne Hays with Elizabeth Ray), or with a lobbyist (Tom Evans with Puala Parkinson).

The big Mack attack

At the next-easiest level is the politician whose private behavior bespeaks a striking hypocrisy, If a gay congressman goes out of his way to give homophobic speeches, for example, he is a fair candidate for "outing" not only by gay activists but by the mainstream press. A radical outing publication has recently been trying to interest the major media in a civilian Pentagon official who is gay. This is a far tougher case. Is his presence in the Defense Department a form of collusion in the military's medieval prohibition on gay servicemen and women? Lacking any evidence that he has a central leadership role in extending that policy, I would vote to preserve his privacy. It does terrible violence to the ideal of a common interest to carry too far the insistence that a particular person, by virtue of gender or sexual orientation or color or any other index, has a greater responsibility than others to address a particular issue. And it would be a very bad idea to set the press up as arbiters of special-interest purity.

Alcoholism and drug use offer clearer standards than sexuality. Postwar Washington offers a sad catalog of powerful men whose alcoholism was covered up, overlooked, and denied. Former House Speaker Carl Albert, former House Armed Services Committee Chairman L. Mendel Rivers, former House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, and former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long are just a few of the influential men whose alcoholism, though widely known, went unreported. (Mills and Long are both recovering alcoholics today.) Even in the most destructive hours of Senator Joseph McCarthy's career, the press never reported that he sometimes swigged from a liquor bottle during press conferences and ate butter by the stick to salve his ulcers.

Although there were disturbing and unfair elements of the "character" coverage surrounding John Tower's nomination as secretary of defense, it was encouraging to see Washington at least beginning to wrestle, for the first time, with the reality of alcoholism in its midst.

Critics of the "new moralism" fear the press corps as a pack of teetotaling, prudish character cops. But the best argument for an expansive approach to reporting on politicians' backgrounds, habits, histories, and families has very little to do with vice. At the end of Freud's century we understand that people are infinitely complex beings who integrate a huge number of motives and passions in everything they do. Man is not easily compartmentalized, as Washington has long liked to believe; weaknesses and strengths may all be relevant.

This complexity is what journalists are edging toward when they mutter their arguments about how something or other speaks to a candidate's "judgment." We have only begun to invent a journalism that can write honestly and responsibly about the subtleties of human nature in politics, but I do believe that is what we are trying to do, and that it is a laudable goal.

Finally, there are cases that do not pose themselves as familiar questions of public interest, but of which the public should unquestionably be told. An excellent recent case was The Washington Post's publication, in the spring of 1989, of a story detailing the ordeal of a woman named Pamela Small. Sixteen years earlier she had been senselessly attacked in a store by a clerk who lured her to a back room, pounded her skull in with a hammer, and left her to die.

She survived, but her attacker served only 27 months in a county jail. One reason for his lenient treatment was his relation, by marriage, to Rep. Jim Wright, who interceded on his behalf and promised him a job. Over the years, John Mack had worked his way up to become a top aide to Wright and perhaps the most powerful staffer in the House.

When Small finally decided to tell her story, the reaction in political Washington was astonishing: Oh, said many people on the Hill. We knew that. It turned out that most of the reporters covering the Hill had known about Mack's crime but had concluded that he'd paid his debt to society. The crime had taken place long ago; and, after all, he was a source. So they hadn't thought to mention it--not even, in many cases, to their editors.

The Post was widely criticized (and is criticized by both Garment and Sabato) for running the story in the midst of Wright's ethics troubles. But it was a riveting story, and it said some mighty riveting things about the culture of Capitol Hill that a man had so easily sloughed off the burden of an unfathomably vicious crime. Surely ordinary men and women, the people out there paying Mack one of the highest salaries in government, had a right to consider whether there are or should be limits to the concepts of rehabilitation and atonement. (When the story ran, they did, and apparently there were. Mack resigned under pressure a week later.)

Selective memory

Journalists will go on debating what should and should not be grist for their mill. Standards will continue to vary enough so that there will be no clear "statute of limitations," no bright line dividing the areas of her life a politician will and won't be seeing on the evening news. The lack of consensus will be confusing and sometimes messy. But recent events suggest that the public is capable of a carefully modulated response to 'scandalous" news about public figures. Thik, for example, of the different reactions to the dope-smoking pasts of two Supreme Court nominees. Douglas Ginsburg was judged harshly because he had smoked marijuana in the presence of students while a professor at Harvard Law School. Clarence Thomas is judged more leniently because his drug use, as reported by the press, was less a matter of habit and further in the past. (Also, the Reagan administration, which nominated Ginsburg, may have been slightly more vulnerable to charges of hypocristy than the Bush administration.)

Sadly, Sabato and Garment are both persuasive in arguing that a majority of talented reporters would rather write about personalities and peccadilloes than face the difficulty of writing about government with sophistication and depth. Here Sabato has the smarter observation to offer: It's not that journalists are heavily biased in political races, he argues. They're so anxious not to seem biased, in fact, that they cling to a concept of journalism in which they are merely recorders and scorekeepers rather than analysts of what is at stake.

Both authors are right in arguing, too, that scandal reporting tends to distort politics. If the latest and most low-down gets the biggest play, it's impossible for any news organization to provide context for the work of reporters who are out there digging around in General Accounting Office and inspector general reports or analyzing program costs for a new weapons system. This, Garment argues, is the case with the S&L scandal. If our headlines are constant banners of sleaze, how can the public be expected to grasp the magnitude of a decade-long blunder costing hundreds of billions of dollars? The boy has cried wolf too often.

But both authors err in seeing scandal coverage as the source of every weakness in contemporary journalism. Sabato and Garment posit some past golden age of journalism in which gross misprision and policy blundering were easily and often exposed by reporters--when it was, they do not say. In fact, many of the restraints that both authors seem nostalgic for also restrained journalists from covering topics that the authors profess to value. Which reporters were systematically exposing the political cynicism that lay behind the Truman administration's loyalty program? Where was the outcry in the '50s, when U.S. soldiers were exposed to atomic tests in the Nevada desert? The same mourned-for respectability and forbearance that turned a blind eye to successive presidents' philandering also, all too often, deferentially overlooked affairs in which the public had an even more obvious stake.

Beat the press

Garment's regret that there wasn't an earlier, more intelligent monitoring of the S&L scandal thus contains an irony: She is talking about assigning the press a watchdog role she otherwise wishes to deny it. The press actually succeeded in naming some of the mess's component parts, and in running (usually on the financial pages) well-informed stories about local and regional S&L problems and the changes in regulation and enforcement that helped fuel the mess. What it did not do--and undoubtedly should have done--was present it as an urgent and coherent problem, and keep at it and at it and at it, even in the absence of politicians' interest. (As Garment notes, the S&L scandal went unnoticed for so long in part because it implicated both Congress and the executive, both Democrats and Republicans. No simple adversarial relationship means no sources means no story.) In newsrooms, we call this setting the agenda--a form of press behavior that Garment abhors in every other circumstance.

Garment summarizes the problems of today's press coverage by writing that "the aggressive, investigative, adversary style of journalism and the attitudes that go along with it have become the accepted measure of journalistic excellence. All good reporters, in this view, should mistrust official explanations, and reporters should occupy themselves by digging for things that established institutions do not want us to know. The central purpose of the journalistic craft, the argument continues, is to bring to citizens' attention the flaws in their institutions and leaders. . . . Indeed, the basic reason for giving the press very broad protections and privileges in a democracy is that people need to know the bad news in order to perform their duties as citizens."

That's a failing?

Marjorie Williams is a reporter for The Washington Post.


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