Journalists expend considerable time and effort writing about themselves, their colleagues and their trade, usually to little effect. Such pieces tend to be preening and defensive, haughty and guilty, cynical and yearning; but rarely is anything significant said.
One of the rare exceptions is available in the Dec. 20 New York Review of Books, which features a highly favorable review of Joan Didion’s “Political Fictions” by none other than Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times. In case you don’t know, that’s the top job at the newspaper of record, the very pinnacle of American print media, held by this distinguished Timesman from 1994 until September. What is remarkable about Lelyveld’s essay has little to do with his specific impressions of Didion’s work. No, the startling things are what the former Times chief reveals about himself. Unlike most of us, his opinions about politics and media matter a great deal, or at least they did until very recently. Over seven historic years, it was he who controlled the paper that sets the national agenda.
It turns out that the man who used to run the Times is quite troubled by the quality of journalism during the era when he was in power, though we learn that circuitously, through his endorsements of many of Didion’s complaints. He is plainly contemptuous of his old rivals at the Washington Post. He worries that readers regard him and his colleagues as part of a “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-enriching establishment” that conspires in the creation of a trivial and misleading narrative of our national life. And most surprisingly, he suggests that there was substance behind suspicions of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons. (Now he tells us.)
Lelyveld is too discreet to refer directly to himself or his career, although he makes an occasional passive allusion to his own insider status. His own views remain somewhat opaque; he remains strangely distant from the events in which he played an important role. Unlike most writers for the New York Review, probably the best-written and certainly the most important literary periodical in the United States, he doesn’t quite advance any argument of his own. Instead, he argues both for and against Didion, almost as if he were talking to himself.
He relishes her “savaging” of Bob Woodward and Michael Isikoff, both of whom Didion decries as practitioners of a journalism that presents reality “not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say, as it is manufactured.” (He also delights in a sardonic shot she takes at Post media critic Howard Kurtz.)
In Woodward’s case, this facade of “fairness” is designed to stroke important sources and shape consensus thinking (which is achieved, writes Didion, without “measurable cerebral activity”). With Isikoff, it meant ignoring the motives and misconduct of the sources who fed him dirt about Bill Clinton, up to and including the Office of Independent Counsel.
Much as Lelyveld enjoys Didion’s elegant evisceration of those celebrated employees of the Washington Post Co., he clearly wishes to exempt his own paper from her broiling indictments of pack journalism. A loyal company man, he specifically defends two of the Times’ better reporters, Francis X. Clines and Michael Winerip, against charges of pack journalism — in a footnote. Still, he admits that her harsh perspective on the craft is “reasonable” for someone living outside “the process.”
Insiders like him see an utterly different landscape, however, where journalists compete relentlessly for scoops while doggedly resisting the “spin” by politicians and their handlers. He pleads innocence, on the dubious ground that politicians don’t like or trust reporters. Yet Lelyveld knows this is too simple, and he is too honest to deny that “in the end something like a narrative is foisted on the land.”
But he immediately forsakes that insight — and the responsibility of major newspapers — to lay blame on “the vast and fragmented communications system itself, the crazy echo chamber in which we are all doomed to live.” In other words, the problem is television, as produced by “ratings-driven broadcast conglomerates.”
There is some validity in that excuse, of course, but not enough. As everyone who has ever observed broadcast journalism at close quarters knows, it is print reporters and editors who determine the daily “narrative” parroted by TV anchors. In last year’s presidential campaign, for example, the acid portrait of Al Gore was etched by leading newspaper reporters, many of whom began appearing on cable chat shows cracking wise in ways that would never be permitted in their papers. (The sudden ubiquity of Times reporters on TV was among the innovations of Lelyveld’s regime.)
If Lelyveld doesn’t understand his paper’s complicity in that ugly undertaking, he should read Salon writer Eric Boehlert’s essay on coverage of the 2000 election in the current Rolling Stone, or better yet, peruse the archives of Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler Web site. (His only consolation might be that the Washington Post did considerably worse.) Depicting Gore as a liar and a weasel was central to last year’s Beltway narrative, in which the Times was heavily implicated.
That same self-imposed myopia prevents Lelyveld from looking too closely at the Clinton years. Although he oversaw most of the Times coverage of Whitewater, replete with distortion and omission, he avoids mentioning how that fabricated “scandal” led into the Lewinsky affair. He praises Didion’s able dissection of the Isikoff-Starr version, an unreliable narrative concocted by prosecutors and their helpers in the press. He doesn’t dispute her observation that Washington’s “self-interested political class,” including the media, “smelled blood, Clinton’s.” And he forthrightly agrees that the real story was the independent counsel’s “headlong attempt” to bring down an elected president, adding that Hillary Clinton’s famous remark about a possible conspiracy “was too easily discounted.”
What Lelyveld says next amounts to a confession of sorts. “Very late in the game, reporters started tracing the network of lawyers in the conservative Federalist Society, funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife, that reached into both the Paula Jones defense team and Starr’s office,” he writes. Students of the subject will recognize how inadequate that description is, but it is apparently the best he can do.
The question he is uniquely qualified to answer, but does not, is why that fascinating and salient story was so assiduously ignored by the mainstream media, including the Times, for so many years (though Salon did not). Lelyveld cannot quite bring himself to be candid on that sensitive topic, which is, ironically, the same kind of intellectual failure excoriated so passionately and so precisely by Joan Didion. It is astonishing, nevertheless, that he even tries.