MEDIArnBad Newsrnby Janet Scott BarlowrnOh, the tedium. We are confronted,rnyet again, with the spectacle of thernestabhshment media suffering one ofrntheir spasms of professional angst, asrnthey ask each other, with fake drama,rnwhat their audience, in genuine anger,rnfrequently asks them: Why do you get sornmuch so wrong so often? For those whornhave witnessed previous media exhibitionsrnin which self-absorption is paradedrnas self-analysis, the climax of this currentrnthrash-about is easy to predict: a twohourrnPBS roundtable and a one-hourrnNightline special during which the mostrnelite members of the elite media conclude,rnwith the preening modesty that’srnall their own, that while they “aren’t perfect,”rnthey do, no kidding, have a reallyrntough job, and when all is said and done,rnwell, heck, they’re pretty darn good at it.rnThen, with a collective sigh of relief (anotherrnbullet dodged!) and backslaps allrnaround (who says we’re not tough onrnourselves?), they will rest assured that thernnasty episode has passed.rnThe latest outbreak of journalisticrnanxiety was generated by the combinedrneffect of two events: media performancernduring the investigation of Richard Jewell,rnone-time suspect in the OlympicrnPark bombing in Atlanta, and media responsernto Paula Jones’s charge of sexualrnharassment against President Clinton.rnIn their initial coverage of both stories,rnmainstream journalists accepted conventionalrnwisdom (which they alsornhelped create), failed to challengernassumptions, and were guided by theirrnown predispositions. That is, theyrnignored the most rudimentary elementsrnof journalism. In the Jewell case, theyrnpresented an example of herd mentalityrnat its breathless worst. With Paula Jones,rnjournalists went a step further, participatingrnwithout question in a campaignrnorchestrated by the White House tornsmear Jones’s name and reputation.rnThe media’s take on both storiesrnproved spectacularly wrong. But morerninteresting than the fact of negligencernwas the journalistic response to the consequencesrnof negligence. There was nornevident sense of guilt at having participatedrnin heaping pointless pain on twornhuman beings. There was instead a feelingrnof professional embarrassment atrnhaving blown it. The media weren’trnashamed because they were wrong; theyrnwere chagrined because they weren’trnright. As usual, they seemed to equaternthe absence of error with the presence ofrnethics.rnBut as they were digging in on one issuern(there is no wrong, there is only inaccuracy),rnestablishment newspeople were,rnin their typically contradictory fashion,rnyielding ground on another. Withoutrnconceding guilt (which would have suggestedrnthat they, like everyone else, werernsubject to moral scrutiny), journalists didrnadmit that their coverage of the Jewellrnand Jones stories—and by implication,rnmany others—had been distorted byrntheir own elitism, class prejudice, andrnpolitical bias. The public admission ofrntheir presuppositions so unhinged bigtimernjournalists that they lurched into arnparody of self-explanation that onlyrnmade things worse. They were like thernbumbling sexist who tries to makernamends by declaring, “fionest, cupcake,rnI never meant to offend you.”rnIn November 1996, Time magazinernran a lengthy piece about Richard Jewell,rntitled “The Strange Saga of Richard Jewell,”rneven though there was nothingrnstrange about his story and it wasn’t remotelyrna saga. The author of the article,rnJames Collins, set the tone with his hrstrnsentence. Jewell, he wrote, “seems likernthe most hapless individual you couldrnfind” for a contest against the FBI andrnthe media. Collins continued: “An overweight,rnsingle man in his 30’s, [Jewell]rnhasn’t amounted to much in life. He belongsrnto the one demographic group—rnworking-class, Southern white males—rnabout whom society still seems to allowrnslurs, like ‘bubbas.’ He also seems to bernone of those ineffectual men who takernthings too far when they are given a littlernpower.”rnPerhaps a slur is in the mind of thernbeholder, but it does seem that beingrncalled “bubba” is a picnic compared tornhearing yourself described as a hapless,rnineffectual, overweight man who hasn’trnamounted to much in life. On the otherrnhand, Mr. Collins himself appeared torndefine bubba precisely as: “a hapless, ineffectual,rnoverweight man who hasn’trnamounted to much in life.” In the spacernof a single paragraph, James Collins wasrnin over his head. He was just gettingrnstarted, however, and moved on to noternthat regular-guy heroes are played in thernmovies by the likes of Gary Cooper,rnwhile Richard Jewell “seems to be arnpudgy version of Barney Fife.” The imagernof Barney Fife was Mr. Collins’s popculturernshorthand for those readers unablernto understand words like haplessrnand ineffectual. The reference also gavernCollins one more shot at Richard Jewell’srnweight.rnHaving now done everything but callrnthe subject of his article a stupid slob,rnJames Collins pushed on, writing thatrnthe gist of the whole story was how therncombined force of federal law enforcementrnand the national media bore downrnon “one very ordinary man,” RichardrnJewell. And with that, Collins walked intornthe trap he had set for himself in hisrnfirst paragraph. He was categorizing thernhapless, ineffectual, overweight fellowrnwho hasn’t amounted to much in life: anrnordinary man. Collins was clueless to thernfact that his choice of adjectives had exposedrnhis opinion of the ordinary man asrna loser; and he was oblivious to the enormityrnof this insult. But so what? Herncould take high-minded pride in his refusalrnto allow “bubba” to escape his lips.rnEnsnared by his own class bias and intellectualrnineptitude, James Collins nowrnflailed toward a conclusion, and it wasn’trnpretty. The “lesson” of the tale, accordingrnto Collins, was this: “Give the ordinaryrnguy a ton of publicity—good orrnbad—and a couple of attorneys, and herncan take on the world.”rnNo, the lesson is that idiots can getrnhired at major newsweeklies. The fact is,rnof course, that Richard Jewell was notrn”given” a ton of publicity, he was subjectedrnto it. (However, give does accuratelyrnreflect the media’s appraisal ofrntheir product. Publicity is a gift, one ofrngreat value, one for which recipientsrnshould feel grateful.) Nor was Jewellrn”given” lawyers; he was forced by necessityrnto hire them. And he did not “take onrnthe world”; he defended himself againstrn(let’s close the loop) a ton of publicity.rnRichard Jewell is currently filing lawsuitsrnand seeking vindication. He is doingrnthis because he is innocent. Thatrnsame fact, Jewell’s innocence, has servedrnto weaken the credibility of federal lawrnenforcement and the press. To JamesrnCollins, it all added up to something unfair,rnin that Richard Jewell, even if innocent,rnwas simply too banal a figure torn46/CHRONICLESrnrnrn