On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review / Sept 25, 1998 / 5 Tishrei, 5759

Embarassed to be a journalist

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

DURING 35 YEARS ON THE JOB, I've never been embarrassed to say I'm a journalist. That has changed as I've watched too many of my colleagues willingly assist Special Inquisitor Kenneth Starr drag this nation into a major crisis.

Analyst Jonathan Alter recently moaned on NBC that our "standards" were getting lower and lower and "we can't do anything about it." That's quite a statement from the resident pundit at Newsweek, the publication that first brought us the salacious mess now engulfing America.

What we've witnessed is a shameful display of professional misjudgment --- not to mention cutthroat opportunism. Despite Starr's failure to produce evidence of truly "criminal activity" in Whitewater or anything else, many in the media irresponsibly hang on to this scandal with pit bull tenacity.

Even when polls indicate the public is satisfied with the President's job performance and wants to get on with it, competing journalists continue beating Starr's drum, dredging up every tawdry detail of what is, after all, the ultimate private matter: someone's sex life.

Did TV have to air every second of the President's video-taped testimony? Did the press have to reprint every comma of the Starr report? News is news, and it must be reported. But while we sometimes report the most heinous crimes, we don't give every horrible detail. We report rapes and murders but don't describe bloodied corpses with their legs spread open.

In showing this story to the world --- including, potentially, millions of kids the tidal wave was as unnecessary as it was indecent. The page 1 anatomical details were over the top. The full interview, if it had to be aired, should have been limited to select channels like Court TV and only at night.

I don't excuse Bill Clinton's misbehavior. Mostly I think it was incredibly dumb. But if a $40 million investigation comes up with nothing more than details about how one oversexed guy cheated on his wife with a willing partner and lied about it, the taxpayers have been as badly cheated as his wife.

It's up to the press to point that out, not to rub America's nose in sleaze or play Perry Mason, as Sam Donaldson did last week when he asked ad nauseam how it was that Clinton couldn't remember he had pizza in a White House corridor!

I'm no Pollyanna. Sex and crime scandals have always been the Viagra of newspaper circulation and TV viewership. But there were always lines of decency, a distinction between a responsible press and the supermarket junk press, between television's "Nightline" and "Hard Copy."

The O.J. trial did much to transform legitimate journalists into gutter reporters, to validate schmutz in exchange for advertising revenue. The line was crossed. Now we can publicly humiliate a President and hope to win a Pulitzer Prize.

And how about those ex-White House aides who are knocking the man who made them stars to begin with. I'm not talking about serious folks like David Gergen. I'm talking about media darlings like Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos, whose ideas of serious contributions include giggling on the Leno and Letterman shows.

Even my old buddy Martha Stewart, who's never hesitated to publicize her friendship with the Clintons, has jumped ship. After filming a fund-raising luncheon with Clinton at her Westport, Conn., TV studio, she announced she was dropping the much-heralded segment from her fall premiere show.

Disloyalty --- it's not a good thing! Neither is irresponsible reporting.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.


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