Syndicated columnist, associate editor, The Boston Globe
“Journalism is not error proof.”
So I thought a bit more about my own job description. I have been described tonight as a columnist. I remember many years ago overhearing my daughter talking to a friend and the friend said to her “what does your mother do?” and my daughter thought a minute and she said, “my mother is a columnist.” And her friend quite logically said “what’s that?” Katie thought a few more minutes and finally said, “well, my mother gets paid for telling people what she thinks.”
Well, “telling people what you think” was also the name of a class I taught at Stanford about three years ago. When I arrived on campus I looked into the curriculum and saw that they had named my course, to my absolute dismay, “telling people what to think.” So I went up to the registrar and I said this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. And she said, “Oh my goodness. No problem at all. We’ll be happy to change it,” and she sent an e-mail off across the entire campus telling people that the name of the course had been changed to “telling people how they think.” So in one day at Stanford I went from being a fascist to a neurologist.
To be a columnist, however, in fact, you need two qualifications: you need nerve and you need endurance. You need the egocentric confidence that your view of wrote a column in Philadelphia for many years who dropped out of this endurance contest some years ago, and he explained the business this way. He said that being a columnist is like being married to a nymphomaniac because every time you thought you were through you had to start all over again. This was a rather unenlightened but fairly accurate analogy.Newspapers in general do two things. They tell people what has happened and they tell them what it means, and I am in the what-it-means end of the business.
Over the last years, as our personal lives and public life have become more complex, as we have been force-fed more and more information, it has become much more important to wrest some meaning from daily events. So as a bona fide member of ‘what-it-means journalism’ I have the unenviable task of trying to make some sense out of the world we live in.
Making sense is not easy when the news in front of us is a presidential sex scandal or the politics of anger. It’s not easy when the media dialogue in America has been reduced to opinion-hurling contests on television in which people compete for the most extreme position, in which we fight rather than reason.
“Newspapers in general do two things. They tell people what has happened and they tell them what it means.”
What I decided to do tonight is try to make sense of a major change that we are going through as Americans. A change brought to us by the media in the way we think about and write about the relationship between private and public life–between the personal and the political–and what I think that change means for the way we do and don’t deal with our real problems in this country today.
Let me begin by telling you a little bit about my own history because when I first became a columnist, first began telling people what I think for a living, newspapers still divided life into neat sections. Politics, foreign affairs, public policy were out front. Families, homes, women, children, relationships, feelings, were all put “back there,” as we used to call it, in the women’s sections. Journalism packaged and separated the world into nice, neat little parts–into genders and into subjects. But men and women didn’t stay put, and neither did life. Life, real life, has a way of spilling over the retaining walls. I deliberately set out to write about life as indeed we experience it. We are, after all, people who get up in the morning worrying about nuclear terrorism and our weight, about the state of the new world economy and whether there are any clean socks in the drawer. And I always wanted to make those connections between the private and the public–write across the walls–to write about life as it is lived.
I also began writing columns just about the time that the women’s movement slogans starting filling the air and there was that famous slogan that said “the personal is political.” That slogan meant many different things. As a young mother it meant that the decision about who did the dishes and changed diapers in a family could also be a political statement about power relationships between men and women. As a young journalist it meant that as long as we wrote about child care or about breast cancer or about abortion as problems for individuals, to be solved one by one each on our own, we would have to struggle with them on our own and separately. We would have no public discussion, no sense of how widespread these problems were, and no political solutions. Yet these problems were private and public, personal and political issues. But that slogan, “the personal is political,” also suggested something about the way we should cover our political leaders. It implied that someone’s character was fully understood only by knowing someone’s private as well as public behavior. That a leader’s personal life carried within it some meaning for everyone’s political life. How they behaved to their family, to their office staff, had some message about how they would behave toward their constituents. Where they came from said something about where they were going and where they were leading us. It seemed to me that we couldn’t exclude the personal man or woman when we wrote about the political, and I was an advocate of change, of personalizing — even privatizing — our coverage.
Well, be careful what you wish for.
“In Doris Goodwin’s wonderful book on the Roosevelt presidency, she reminded us that Americans almost never saw FDR in a wheelchair. “
A half-century ago Americans knew their president almost solely by public behavior. In Doris Goodwin’s wonderful book on the Roosevelt presidency, she reminded us that Americans almost never saw FDR in a wheelchair. There was an understanding among the small Washington press corps not to take pictures of him as he struggled in and out of a wheelchair. Indeed if a new photographer came on the White House beat who didn’t understand that, the rest of the photographers would circle him, in fact shield the President from this prying eye. Imagine that today.
When I was in school and JFK was in the White House there was essentially a gentlemen’s agreement among the small and nearly all-male press corps that they wouldn’t tell “the little woman,” in this case the public, about his private, sexual behavior. Slowly that agreement cracked as women cracked into the business, actually into the gentlemen’s business. As we brought with us the “personal is political,” we convinced our colleagues that the public should have a wider and deeper view. It wasn’t just women, of course, who changed this perspective, nor was it just feminists. After all, feminists have had a wide range of opinions on this subject. Susan B. Anthony, the mother of us all, had once written “if a man’s public record be a clear one, if he’s kept his pledges before the world, I do not inquire what his private life may have been.”
The intimacy of the up-close-and-personal television lens was also a big part of the story. So was the freedom of the rebellious new baby boomer journalists, the baby boomer irreverence for authority, their passion for spotting hypocrisy. All of this had a great effect on changing my profession. And this was before the massive increase in cable television stations or in Internet journalism.
By 1987 the splintering of the gentlemen’s agreement was starkly shown. In that year Gary Hart became the first presidential candidate of the modern era to commit character suicide. In a national presidential campaign he dared the press to follow him and prove what many already knew. They followed him to a good ship called “Monkey Business.” Adultery then became a national issue. The media went through a period of soul searching as well. This affair of the heart, Gary Hart, raised questions about what private infidelity means about someone’s fitness for office. Something? Nothing? Does it mean that a wandering husband hates women or loves them? Is someone who is unfaithful to his marriage vows likely to be unfaithful to his campaign promises? Does it say something about his capacity for deception, or risk taking, or not? Does the whole thing say something about American culture? Imagine Americans looking at the scene the French saw at the funeral of their late leader Francois Mitterand, with his wife and his mistress and all of their children. It raised questions about journalism as well. Was journalism just giving the facts? Or some meaning? Were we gossiping? Or informing? But before–this is way before Monica Lewinsky–in the Gary Hart case we saw an odd coalition emerge not just between the serious and the sleazy media, but between the religious right and the secular left, between puritans and feminists. One may have been concerned with relationships and the other with commandments but they became an odd set of allies.
“Political reporting has, for example, become more a matter of psychology and less a matter of policy.”
By 1992, five years later, Bill Clinton ran for office, the Gennifer Flowers story broke, the media went through another one of those feeding frenzies, but the story seemed different this time and so was the outcome. This time the husband talked about causing pain in his marriage. This time the wife was a partner, not a victim; not–or so we thought–Tammy Wynette. The statute of limitations on infidelity seemed to be up. They’d been through a bad patch and we thought it had been patched. When Clinton survived that primary, many of us in the media became more comfortable. There was the sense the public was able to put the “A” word back into the alphabet soup of character. He survived only to strike again. But the truth is that even before Monica Lewinsky became a household name, we had not achieved as a country any sophisticated balance of the public and private side. It has become harder and harder for journalists to figure out when writing about private behavior is a matter of serious, thoughtful, character investigation and when it is an invasion of privacy. If anything today, we seem less concerned about public morality and more with private ethics. Before the Drudge Report, we had news stories coming from The Globe–not the Boston Globe I assure you–and news entertainment. And what on earth would William Allen White have made of the investigative character reporting on serious issues that ended up with Paula Corbin Jones telling the American public there were distinguishing characteristics on the president’s genitals. Could our journalistic hearing, could Lovejoy himself, imagine a world in which Marv Albert led the paper with descriptions of his sexual behavior and his hairpiece? Was Bob Packwood’s so-called private behavior a public abuse of power? Are we still able to distinguish between a Packwood’s behavior and someone else’s troubled marriage? Indeed it seems to me that in the past we counted divorce against candidates like, say, Adlai Stevenson, while in the present we count against candidates who stay together.
Way back in 1994 (we are moving our way up), the year of that angry white man, we had a contest in Virginia between Charles Robb, who had an extramarital massage, and Oliver North, who was true to his wife and false to Congress. Which is worse? To lie to your wife or to Congress? Each side regarded the other as a flawed character attacking American values, and each side ran ads calling the other a liar. And way back then the First Lady said “there have got to be boundaries.” How do we measure those boundaries? And should we?
I want to add that politics has become personal in other ways. Political reporting has, for example, become more a matter of psychology and less a matter of policy. We have become more familiar with our leaders and, in this democratic process of bringing them close, we have also brought them and our institutions further down. Institutions have become so thoroughly personalized that the Congress sometimes seems to be nothing more than the dubious sum of its flawed members. These inherent contradictions, all these trends, all this concern about info-tainment, about the personal and the political, about men and women, came into unrelenting, intolerable, and interminable focus around the Monica Lewinsky scandal. All the pretensions came out, all the distinctions between the Internet and the New York Times, between sex and policy, character investigation and scandal-mongering, the personal and the political, were lost. There was no newspaper in this country that didn’t run transcripts of the Monica and Bill tapes sonorously describing improper relationships. Though this will someday, I am sure, become the subject of a sitcom entitled ‘Media Behaving Badly.’ It isn’t that we lost our capacity for judgment. In the confusion, in the press of time, in the turmoil, we voluntarily gave it up. There was precious little distinction between the newspaper, the network news, the cable news, the Internet news–it was All-Monica, All-The-Time–complete and final reversal of how we had handled JFK.
It was, by the way, a source of private hilarity for me last month when the Fox Company was talking about paying three million dollars to Monica Lewinsky to interview her. The money, however, they said very self-righteously, would not come from the Fox news division. It would come from the Fox entertainment division. How exactly they knew the difference was beyond me. No longer does the respectable, the senior media, vet the news. Everything goes out there. We are often reduced to simply being a transmission service. It’s all out there on the Internet. The good, the bad, the ugly and, often, the inaccurate. The good news of this election and even this scandal is that actually the public did make up their own mind. They didn’t need the Washington establishment to tell them the truth, to tell them what to think. They rejected wholesale the idea of the Washington media that Clinton had to go. They read and thought differently. This election proved perhaps that they were one step ahead of us.
Let me add, though, one final piece of this puzzle that I’m trying to describe. Before the All-Monica, All-the-Time news, journalists had also personally become what television producers always call on-air personalities. We, too, have become part of the cult of personality. We are not just observers, but participants in what I would describe as the high-decibel politics of the yell. Imagine if you can Walter Lipman or Walter Cronkite on The McGlaughlin Group or on Crossfire or on the gangs and groups and roundtables that are dotted across the journalistic landscape now. The places where our own stars hurl opinions across at each other. Food fights breaking out over ideas. Television journalism has become a performance-entertainment — and the schtick trumps the insight. The worst of it is also that everyone, including journalists these days, are required to be so certain. No ambivalence need apply to any of these shows. They only do ambivalence by dividing up the issues and having two absolutely certain and opposite advocates duke it out. I must tell you that I myself have learned how to get out of some of these shows, especially those that are late at night. I shouldn’t confess this, but I don’t do many nighttime talk shows because I can’t speak after 10. (We still have a little time.) So what I’ve discovered is that when the booker calls you–the booker is almost always a very nice young woman in an entry-level job who’s assigned to call you and to work out the pre-interviews, to ask you how you feel about an issue–and if I don’t want to do the show, I’ve found that the easiest way to get out of it is simply to say, “well I have kind of mixed feelings about that.” You can hear the phone going back on the hook.
But in this atmosphere it has become harder, in general, to distinguish the reporter from the analyst from the pundit, even from the candidate. Sometimes they’re the same person. The ultimate media creation of this peculiar era–the product of this problem–was for me the presidential candidacy of Pat Buchanan, an original member of The McGlaughlin Group and Crossfire. It was Buchanan who, during the New Hampshire primary, said, “You know, people mock The McGlaughlin Group and Crossfire, but the training I got there was extraordinary for a candidate.” I must say that I long regarded Pat Buchanan as the petri-dish conception, the embryo created from the sperm of sound-bite politics and the egg of food-fight journalism. Even before the Lewinsky scandal much of journalism and politics were in a kind of collusion to over-simplify and personalize issues. No room for ambivalence. Plenty of room for personal attack.
Be careful what you wish for. I began by describing how people’s real-life concerns were often left out of the political coverage of the dialogue in those not so good old days, how many of us thought the personal ought also be cast as the political, how instead politics has become so personal in every sense of that word–intimate, gossipy, humanized, trivialized, polarized. I’ve also described how much of this process was originally driven by some of the good impulses behind the movement of women who were less inclined to maintain that fence between these two worlds. In no way do I think we should go back, but in some ways we have come full circle. For all the humanizing of politics, and despite the attempts to bring the process up close and personal, to put a face on it, more people than ever feel that politics has little to do with their real lives. We may have brought our politicians into our readers’ and viewers’ homes, but we haven’t brought our audience into the political process. We haven’t even closed the gender gap. Indeed in the past few years a new gender gap of sorts has occurred in some of the new media. In the radio we have, for example, seen the emergence of talk radio as a political force. The hosts, from Rush Limbaugh to O. Gordon Liddy, are almost entirely men. So were the callers and so were the listeners. The subject of those shows is politics–high decibel, dysfunctional politics–and the tone is high-volume outrage. Indeed talk radio has been a kind of electronic male consciousness-raising circuit for angry men.
” We may have brought our politicians into our readers’ and viewers’ homes, but we haven’t brought our audience into the political process.”
At the same time we’ve seen an enormous increase in what you would call talk television. There the hosts — with the exception of Jerry Springer, who is the exception for everything — are often women, from Oprah to Ricky Lake to Jenny Jones, and the audience is overwhelmingly female. The subject of these shows is private life. Dysfunctional private life. Broken families, soured relationships, an endless parade of hapless, hopeless souls discussing their most intimate problems on the public airways. Or, as my grandmother might have said, “airing their dirty linen in public.” In the mostly male talk-radio world the subject is politics. In the mostly female talk-television world there is no political content whatsoever, no political direction, no political solution. What after all can candidates for the Senate do about sisters who steal your boyfriend or daughters who strip-tease for a living? The personal is totally apolitical. These two most lively new worlds of communication are not only divided by gender, but by perspective. The female world is, again, personal; the male world, political, and segregated as ever.
When, during the summer, I drive from Boston to our home in Maine, as a personal act of penance I listen to talk radio. And I have certainly come to the conclusion that women are driven away from this forum by the sound of it — the hostile kind of winner-takes-all, vindictive, angry sound of it. But the only forum that is designated as ours is a highly traditional world of relationships, in which life is disconnected from policy.
The irony in the Lewinsky scandal, where the personal became political with a vengeance, where sex became an impeachable offense, is that suddenly women were called on to talk, to be analysts, in fact demanded to be our country’s sexual arbiters. These shows may not be what we like to think of as journalism, but they are all part of a new world of communications. And as James David Barber once said, “everybody knows what adultery is and nobody knows what the word deficit means.” It is sexier, in every sense of the word, to cover character than policy. This year the fullest coverage was not on HMOs or schools, but on sex. Not on whether Clinton’s kind of politics was skewing the country, but whether he was, well, above or below the blouse. It’s the connections that are still misfiring, although perhaps in a different direction — the connections that would make us see the whole. If the Republicans learned in this last election that people want to hear less of Monica and more about their schools, will the media learn it? And how will we deal with it?
“The people we cover also have the right, maybe even the obligation (and I say this with a lump in my throat) not to answer our questions, not to cross the line between respect and distance. “
Now at this point in any speech we are expected to offer a perspective for the future. The truth is that journalists are terrible at this. We don’t do windows, we don’t do futures. Most of us just struggle on a daily basis with the pieces of the infotainment puzzle; this puzzle about how to cover the personal and political. We struggle too with the public, that wants to know and doesn’t want to want to know about the private lives of public figures. But there are some principles to uphold. We can uphold that old principle that asks whether this piece of personal behavior is relevant to the performance of someone’s public duties-thank you Susan B. Anthony. What is, after all, the reason for the public’s right to know? Did we have more need to know about Ronald Reagan’s health than about Bill Clinton’s sexual conflicts? We can also uphold the principle of self-restraint; though that may seem like a laughable concept, journalists have actually been restrained in reporting, for example, on the life of Chelsea Clinton. Someone at least is off bounds and that’s a decent model. The people we cover also have the right, maybe even the obligation (and I say this with a lump in my throat) not to answer our questions, not to cross the line between respect and distance. I would call this the Supreme-Court-Justice approach to the media. Who, after all, came out of this election respected? Hillary Rodham Clinton, who did not talk. Who went out on the campaign trail as if it were a victory tour, refusing to tell us her feelings, passing up Barbara Walters’ interview, while at dozens of stops Americans gave her a collective cheer, “You go girl.”
We can also I think be somewhat less hasty and more layered in our analysis. We can try to fit one event into the context of life or a career more sensitively than we do now. Fundamentally we have to encourage people to know more, not less, so that we are not at risk of being this bumper-sticker society.
And finally, of course, we can learn to make character judgments the way porcupines make love–very, very carefully. In the past most Americans lived in a small community in which everyone knew everyone else — not unlike a college community. Today we are likely to live in the global community. We know less about our neighbors and much, much more about our public figures. We gossip about them the way we used to gossip about the people next door. But at the same time we have lost the sense that public policy has much to do with our lives-that politics matters. As the pendulum swings back, and it will, it must, that’s the connection we have to restore. That’s the still-unfulfilled meaning of the phrase, “the personal is the political and the political is personal.” Restoring that connection is as hard a task as any we ever encounter. It’s more likely to happen at a local level, where people can see the school, the waste dump, the programs-but it has to happen in our nation as well. And that’s a tall, tall order for those of us who are journalists and for those of you who read and watch us and demand more. In fact sometimes I think Jack Kerouac, the Beat-generation poet, may well have written the best motto for journalism of the 1990s way back in the 1950s when he warned us all, ‘Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”
Thank you very much.