And a little scumbag shall lead them

The past week's news gush nearly tripped up attempts at year-end news wrap-ups, but James Poniewozik sees clearly: The big news this year was sex and the president.

Published December 22, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Last weekend, the House of Representatives met in a special session to resolve one of the gravest matters ever put before it: selecting Time magazine's Man of the Year. At least that was the case if a gossip item in the New York Post was accurate -- that Time was standing by ready to name Hillary Clinton Woman of the Year if impeachment failed, and, failing a vote by press time, home-run king Mark McGwire.

It was a week to boggle the mind, a week to make history -- a week, in short, to totally fuck up year-in-review roundups. Forget politics stopping at the water's edge; the principle that was truly upended this past week is that no real news should occur between Dec. 15 and Jan. 2. Then again, the last week in the news really was the year in the news, what with the simultaneous climaxes of the impeachment story and the bombing of -- oh, you know, that luminous green country with no people in it. Why bother rounding up 1998? We spent a year there last week.

The same holds for the year's media news: Its issues and trends were captured in miniature in the overstressed news coverage of the last few days. You want the influence of the Web on old media? Look at the cable-news networks, which -- cramming frames within frames to keep both war and Washington on air -- needed only a hit counter and a few bootleg Simpsons gifs to look like poorly designed home pages circa 1995. You want advertorial innovation? No sooner had the military named its assault on -- it was someplace in the Middle East, right? -- than Fox News Channel tastefully whipped up the logo "Desert FOX," the latter word in massive gold type, inaugurating the first product placement in a U.S. military adventure. (Might we suggest "The Samsung Korean War II"?) You want reality television? Look at the nose-cone bombing footage that the Pentagon trotted out and feel the pride of living in a country that installs TV cameras even on its weapons. America does not rip your heart out and show it to you before you die; America rips your heart out and puts it on CNN.

But above all, the week proved that there was only one story this year, when impeachment won the airwaves from the hostilities in -- Iran! That's it! (All this proving how silly the "Wag the Dog" postulate was. If President Clinton believed a remote-controlled war against a group of swarthy third worlders would distract Americans for more than half an hour, he wouldn't have had the brains to get elected in the first place.) It's only a shame McGwire didn't end up on Time's cover, not because "he let us finally feel good about ourselves again" (from last year's Mars mission back through Cal Ripken Jr., the first Gulf War and beyond, America never really stops finally feeling good about itself again), but because he proved that no subject -- from war to the economy to baseball -- was too important, exciting or irrelevant to be brought into the tedious embrace of the Story of the Year.

Or Stories of the Year, for that story broke down into two identifiable but not inseparable parts: the Monica story (the sex, the thong, the Altoids) and the legal-political story (the subpoenas, the leaks, the hearings). The highfalutin J-school critique of the media's performance in 1998 is that while the press admirably covered the legal-political story, which after all involved the potential removal of the chief executive, it was out of line on the sex story, which after all was just a tawdry tale about the president having an affair with a 22-year-old.

But the argument on the Monica story is wrong, and here's why: It was a tawdry tale about the president having an affair with a 22-year-old. God save our frigid, dead souls the day we fail to get a kick out of news like that. As much as the respectable media liked to tut-tut over the public discourse taking place in the late-night monologues, that was exactly where this story belonged. The legal-political story is the one that really wearied us, and it was, sadly, out of the scandalmongers' control.

That hasn't stopped the popular perception that it was scandalmongering that brought us to this pass, though. Sarah Kerr, in a Slate dialogue last week, implied that the media have pruriently stretched out the story: "Take the example of what's happening this week with the prez. In undeniable ways, the media seem more powerful than ever, more driven to dress up the news as entertainment no matter what the destructive cost. But the public annoyance with this circus shows that though we may not be able to control the entertainment, we're getting better at tuning it out."

This "destructive ... circus" charge is the standard line by now: the press as troupe of evil clowns, spritzing the foul seltzer of scandal at its helpless audience over and over again. By slavering over scandal, it kept the story alive and buried the president. What this argument misses -- and we saw this in the pointless speculations this year on whether public opinion would affect Ken Starr -- is that the law doesn't give a crap whether you pay attention to it or not. In fact, to the extent that it did go crazy over the sex aspects of the story, the press perversely became Clinton's best friend, unintentionally putting it in a ludicrous perspective that served him best. It flatters journalists to believe that the public hates only those bad apples peddling sensation, that it would approve of us if only we would take our jobs seriously, but really -- as Michael Wolff's "Impeach the Media" poll analysis in New York magazine last month showed -- the more we took the story gravely, hand-wringingly seriously, the more the public sickened of it, and us.

We had it all figured out after 1997, didn't we? After Diana and the paparazzi, we decided the greatest problem in the media was the sleaze-hungry tabloid press. Then 1998 came along and showed us that the tabloid press may be the most responsible institution the country has. At least, in its single-minded attention to novelty and shock, it shows a simple wisdom lacking in our more responsible institutions this year: You gorge on a juicy story until you vomit, then you move on. Remember how the first few weeks of the Lewinsky story -- the period truly driven by salacious excitement -- was decried as a low point in the tabloidization of the media? Today it looks like a Periclean golden age compared with the sclerotic "It's just about sex/No it's not" dialogue that followed: If it started as a feeding frenzy, it lived on as a grim prison cafeteria line. If only the Lewinsky story were cynically driven by entertainment values -- it would have died by April.

It is only appropriate, then, that the only genuine, unscripted moments in the news this past week were prompted by Larry Flynt, whose Hustler magazine launched the congressional-sex investigation that prompted Bob Livingston's resignation as speaker-designate. Likewise, toe-sucker Dick Morris is probably the most egregious wise-man apotheosis on talk TV, but amid last week's "Wag the Dog" flurry he was a comparative voice of reason, appearing on Fox and nailing the hypocrisy, given their Gulf War track records, of both the Republicans' loose-cannon attacks and the Democrats' shut-up-and-support-the-troops rhetoric. Morris may be an unprincipled sleaze, but the great thing about sleaze at a time of dazzling, universal hypocrisy is that it's nonpartisan: The only thing it's against is cheap sanctimony. Indeed, when -- if -- this story ends, the most lasting changes in our politics may have been wrought by the tabloid sex wallowers, who, by performing a sort of aversion therapy on the public, have done more than the intelligentsia to ensure that adulterers can now proudly run for office.

The responsible media, on the other hand, managed to take what should have been a perfectly thrilling wallow in bodily fluids and turn it into a joyless, vengeful, yearlong kick in the ass. As 1998 commenced we resolved to reap the lessons of 1997, and we reaped them good and hard. We grew up and got serious; we started the year unzipped, we ended it unspun. As we finish up the holiday season and get ready to party like it's 1868, does anyone out there feel better off for it?

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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