Gone with the windbags

The election took some of the steam out of the Washington Punditocracy's hot air balloon.

By Gary Kamiya
Published November 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The people have spoken. And the sound that emanated from their collective lips on Tuesday was a resonant, whoopee-cushion-like effusion aimed directly into the ears not only of the Bible-thumping wing of the Republican Party but of the punditocracy -- the pay-by-the-hour windbags, moralists for hire, Op-Ed Savonarolas and assorted other dispensers of reddi-whipped political wisdom and congealed ethical instruction. If they did nothing else, the midterm election results laid to rest once and for all the notion that the chattering classes speak for and to anybody but themselves.

The pundits have been so wrong about so many things and with such glorious consistency that their record almost inspires awe. Cast your mind back to last winter, when reports of a Clinton dalliance first switched the pundit Outrage-O-Meter onto permanent autopilot. There was ABC's Sam Donaldson, intoning to his cronies that "if he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days." There was Donaldson's newbie colleague George Stephanopoulos on the same show, following in the footsteps of his Beltway Media Club elders with the same cluck-clucking line. There was right-wing pinup girl Ann Coulter, arguing for impeachment on the talk shows at the same time that she was assisting the actual impeachment effort. There was the New York Times editorial page, piously donning its black executioner's hood and mournfully sharpening its ax in preparation for the bloody, yet necessary, civic task a Newspaper of Record must sometimes undertake. There was Times columnist William Safire, pulling off the admirable feat of being paid by the newspaper for writing what read like internal GOP strategy memos. There was the credulous Washington press corps, chasing after every Starr handout with visions of Watergate glory dancing like sugarplums in their heads. And there was the nation's self-appointed Scolder-in-Chief William Bennett, elbowing his way to the front of the Bully Pulpit and exhorting us all to be more outraged.

But not many of us were outraged. In fact, outside of the pathological cabal of Clinton-haters, that weird group who are single-handedly carrying on the paranoid tradition of American politics, few Americans even cared. The gigantic Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, in which TV, newspapers, magazines and tabloids all contributed their unique voices to a cacophony of moral pomposity and dead-wrong political predictions, was completely ignored by the public at large.

This only made things worse. With each new leaked "development," the weird, self-obsessed dance going on inside the media's opulent little glass house grew more frenzied. The tapes! The dress! The video! The cigar! Men in power ties hurled themselves weirdly through the air. Smoke rose out of John Gibson's bushy hair. Staid producers gyrated like Bacchantes, spinmeisters howled in heat. Outside, people were banging on the walls, screaming at the crazed masquers to stop it and let our elected leaders get back to work, but they might as well have been scruffy transients banging on the hood of a speeding Lexus.

Finally, the mad fit ended. After the videotape was released and Clinton's approval ratings went up, the whole thing deflated like yesterday's party balloon. The New York Times, which had been calling on Clinton to admit he lied under oath (a weirdly vengeful and gratuitous demand, reminiscent of Maoist "constructive self-criticism" followed by the firing squad), began easing surreptitiously toward the exit, even hinting that they might find Kenneth Starr objectionable for something more serious than just his poor PR skills. Maureen Dowd turned her evil eye away from Monica and upon the independent counsel. The talking heads and editorialists suddenly embraced a new sobriety, a note of measured and self-satisfied civic centrism in which the Voice of the People, once portrayed as appallingly shallow and materialistic, now rippled through the wheat fields like a Carl Sandburg oration. And since no one was taping the pundits' earlier idiotic utterances, no one accused them of the journalistic equivalent of malpractice. By the end of election night, the whole unseemly episode had been so cleaned up, so sanitized, that it might as well never have existed.

And so lo and behold, on "Nightline" last night who should turn up but George Stephanopoulos, practically choking up as he fed Ted Koppel some heartwarming inside dish about how the president spent the evening "camped out in White House Chief of Staff John Podesta's office hunched over that computer, pulling up the results one by one by one in loving fashion and then calling the victors on the telephone. It's been an amazing night for the president." Did Koppel ask Stephanopoulos why he had suddenly become so warm and fuzzy about the man he had denounced weeks ago as unfit for office? Of course not. Because this is Pundit Land, where colleagues don't step on each other's toes and yesterday's moral outrage magically morphs into today's "clear-eyed assessment."

Of course, not being on the same page as the people does not necessarily make journalists wrong: The people are not always right. But the Lewinsky episode was no case of voices crying in the wilderness, of lonely press guardians of our civic virtue trying to wake up a slumbering citizenry. The facts of the case were never substantially in dispute, after all -- it was all a matter of interpretation, of judgment. But on matters of judgment pertaining to the civic good, in a spectacle-drenched age in which the elite media have enormous power, one would hope that at least some of those judgments would reflect what real people actually believe. And here the pundits completely failed. It is now clear that from the very beginning, at least as many people believed that the Starr investigation was a political witch hunt as that Clinton should be thrown out -- but until recently, the mainstream media completely ignored Starr.

How has the elite media fallen so completely out of touch with the American people? There are several reasons.

First, there is the media's well-chronicled ideological imbalance -- the McLaughlin Group syndrome, in which talk shows are loaded up with right-wing commentators and one or two hapless centrists posing as liberals. Until the media, particularly the TV media, more accurately reflect the actual spectrum of opinion in this country (to balance right-wing ideologues like George Will, Fred Barnes, William Kristol, etc., you'd have to exhume the Fabians), humiliating debacles like the Lewinsky story will happen again.

Second, there's the structural explanation: money. Monica Lewinsky was good for ratings; she sold papers, moved magazines, built Web traffic. Like O.J., the scandal launched entire shows -- and created, in Keith Olbermann, the world's first postmodern anchor. You expected Olbermann's face to come equipped with Derridean footnotes, so infinitely ironic were his expressions -- and so futile, as the profitable circus raged on around him.

Third, there is the pundits' peculiarly American obeisance to puritanism. In fact, I believe that most pundits do see themselves as speaking in some way for "the people" -- we are to believe that their Olympian pronouncements are channeled from Everyman. But this actually led them to pretend to be more sanctimonious, more morally censorious, than they really were. They got all dressed up, morally speaking, for their "official" pronouncements. Fearing that it would be suicidal for them to appear as if they were pooh-poohing presidential adultery, they were led into a fatal pomposity. (Of course, some talking heads' pomposity seems entirely genuine, as in the case of Cokie Roberts.) Their priggishness made them look like guidance counselors at an all-night rave. The country is simply hipper than they thought.

Which leads to the related fourth point: Due to income, lifestyle, political beliefs and various professional deformations, the pundit class is increasingly out of touch with ordinary Americans. The worst sins of a highly specialized professional group were exposed in the scandal coverage: the incestuous insularity, group-think and delusions of phony "expertise." Lavishly compensated and ego-inflated, the Tim Russerts and George Willses of Pundit Land are unbuffeted by the thousand trials and tribulations that less pampered people experience, trials that teach them tolerance and humor. This explains the pundits' bizarre moral arrogance, their rigid naiveti, their laughable -- and often hypocritical -- shock, shock,at discovering that a president had engaged in the oldest sin in the book. And it also explains some of the visceral antipathy -- even hatred -- more and more Americans feel for the media.

Finally, there is just plain old bad journalism. The real story of the scandal coverage is the failure of the media to make sophisticated discriminations, to ask larger questions. It's as if Washington reporters had decided that to place the scandal story in a bigger context (asking, for instance, why Starr should be extending his Whitewater probe into the president's private life) would be a violation of journalistic etiquette that would land them outside the clubby comforts of the Beltway consensus. At a more mundane level, reporters often just can't see the forest for the trees. As Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz portrays them in "Spin Cycle," Beltway journalists are suspicious in the wrong way -- incapable of distinguishing between an irrelevant "gotcha" story that will advance their career and one that has actual significance.

Has the punditocracy learned its lesson? We can probably expect a little less shrillness in the upcoming impeachment farce, a little less harrumphing sanctimony. But nothing is likely to really change. In an age in which politics, journalism and show business have begun to merge, pundits have increasingly become performers, and performers posture and declaim -- that's what they do. As long as political commentators, like sports-radio jocks, are hired on the basis of who has the loudest, most obnoxiously nasal voice, we'll be forced to endure their sermons. And as long as those commentators remain drawn from a stagnant, inbred pool, those sermons will be inane.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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