Oh, the tedium. We are confronted, yet again, with the spectacle of the establishment media suffering one of their spasms of professional angst, as they ask each other, with fake drama, what their audience, in genuine anger, frequently asks them: Why do you get so much so wrong so often? For those who have witnessed previous media exhibitions in which self-absorption is paraded as self-analysis, the climax of this current thrash-about is easy to predict: a two-hour PBS roundtable and a one-hour Nightline special during which the most elite members of the elite media conclude, with the preening modesty that’s all their own, that while they “aren’t perfect,” they do, no kidding, have a really tough job, and when all is said and done, well, heck, they’re pretty darn good at it. Then, with a collective sigh of relief (another bullet dodged!) and backslaps all around (who says we’re not tough on ourselves?), they will rest assured that the nasty episode has passed.

The latest outbreak of journalistic anxiety was generated by the combined effect of two events: media performance during the investigation of Richard Jewell, one-time suspect in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, and media response to Paula Jones’s charge of sexual harassment against President Clinton. In their initial coverage of both stories, mainstream journalists accepted conventional wisdom (which they also helped create), failed to challenge assumptions, and were guided by their own predispositions. That is, they ignored the most rudimentary elements of journalism. In the Jewell case, they presented an example of herd mentality at its breathless worst. With Paula Jones, journalists went a step further, participating without question in a campaign orchestrated by the White House to smear Jones’s name and reputation.

The media’s take on both stories proved spectacularly wrong. But more interesting than the fact of negligence was the journalistic response to the consequences of negligence. There was no evident sense of guilt at having participated in heaping pointless pain on two human beings. There was instead a feeling of professional embarrassment at having blown it. The media weren’t ashamed because they were wrong; they were chagrined because they weren’t right. As usual, they seemed to equate the absence of error with the presence of ethics.

But as they were digging in on one issue (there is no wrong, there is only inaccuracy), establishment newspeople were, in their typically contradictory fashion, yielding ground on another. Without conceding guilt (which would have suggested that they, like everyone else, were subject to moral scrutiny), journalists did admit that their coverage of the Jewell and Jones stories—and by implication, many others—had been distorted by their own elitism, class prejudice, and political bias. The public admission of their presuppositions so unhinged bigtime journalists that they lurched into a parody of self-explanation that only made things worse. They were like the bumbling sexist who tries to make amends by declaring, “Honest, cupcake, I never meant to offend you.”

In November 1996, Time magazine ran a lengthy piece about Richard Jewell, titled “The Strange Saga of Richard Jewell,” even though there was nothing strange about his story and it wasn’t remotely a saga. The author of the article, James Collins, set the tone with his first sentence. Jewell, he wrote, “seems like the most hapless individual you could find” for a contest against the FBI and the media. Collins continued: “An overweight, single man in his 30’s, [Jewell] hasn’t amounted to much in life. He belongs to the one demographic group—working-class, Southern white males— about whom society still seems to allow slurs, like ‘bubbas.’ He also seems to be one of those ineffectual men who take things too far when they are given a little power.”

Perhaps a slur is in the mind of the beholder, but it does seem that being called “bubba” is a picnic compared to hearing yourself described as a hapless, ineffectual, overweight man who hasn’t amounted to much in life. On the other hand, Mr. Collins himself appeared to define bubba precisely as: “a hapless, ineffectual, overweight man who hasn’t amounted to much in life.” In the space of a single paragraph, James Collins was in over his head. He was just getting started, however, and moved on to note that regular-guy heroes are played in the movies by the likes of Gary Cooper, while Richard Jewell “seems to be a pudgy version of Barney Fife.” The image of Barney Fife was Mr. Collins’s pop culture shorthand for those readers unable to understand words like hapless and ineffectual. The reference also gave Collins one more shot at Richard Jewell’s weight.

Having now done everything but call the subject of his article a stupid slob, James Collins pushed on, writing that the gist of the whole story was how the combined force of federal law enforcement and the national media bore down on “one very ordinary man,” Richard Jewell. And with that, Collins walked into the trap he had set for himself in his first paragraph. He was categorizing the hapless, ineffectual, overweight fellow who hasn’t amounted to much in life: an ordinary man. Collins was clueless to the fact that his choice of adjectives had exposed his opinion of the ordinary man as a loser; and he was oblivious to the enormity of this insult. But so what? He could take high-minded pride in his refusal to allow “bubba” to escape his lips.

Ensnared by his own class bias and intellectual ineptitude, James Collins now flailed toward a conclusion, and it wasn’t pretty. The “lesson” of the tale, according to Collins, was this: “Give the ordinary guy a ton of publicity—good or bad—and a couple of attorneys, and he can take on the world.”

No, the lesson is that idiots can get hired at major newsweeklies. The fact is, of course, that Richard Jewell was not “given” a ton of publicity, he was subjected to it. (However, give does accurately reflect the media’s appraisal of their product. Publicity is a gift, one of great value, one for which recipients should feel grateful.) Nor was Jewell “given” lawyers; he was forced by necessity to hire them. And he did not “take on the world”; he defended himself against (let’s close the loop) a ton of publicity.

Richard Jewell is currently filing lawsuits and seeking vindication. He is doing this because he is innocent. That same fact, Jewell’s innocence, has served to weaken the credibility of federal law enforcement and the press. To James Collins, it all added up to something unfair, in that Richard Jewell, even if innocent, was simply too banal a figure to score points against such estimable institutions as the media and the FBI. He wasn’t worthy, you see. “You almost wish [Jewell would] quit now,” Collins concluded. “Sign a lucrative book or movie contract and call it even. But it’s only in films that adversity makes the ordinary man noble and merciful.” In other words, Richard Jewell was not only a loser, he was an ingrate. After being wrongfully attacked by two of the most powerful institutions in the country, Jewell did not have the grace to be ennobled by his “adversity,” or the generosity to react with mercy. What’s more, he lacked the intelligence to understand that a pile of money makes things “even.” How ordinary can you get?

Two weeks after Time‘s Richard Jewell article, Newsweek weighed in on the Paula Jones case. The cover story was authored by Evan Thomas, a Newsweek honcho, who subsequently was hailed within his profession for his admission of elitism, having stated previously, on national television, that Paula Jones was “some sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks.” However, Mr. Thomas’s mea culpa was slipped between parentheses near the end of his story, previous portions of which did indeed reveal his elitism, his confession notwithstanding, along with evidence that he was making little progress at putting said elitism behind him. From the many examples of Evan Thomas’s continuing obtuseness, one will suffice. Thomas’s question: “If Clinton did what Jones alleges [expose himself and ask for sex], how could he have been so reckless?” Thomas’s answer: “At the time, [Clinton] could not have contemplated the price he would later pay.”

Evan Thomas, meet James Collins. I hereby christen you the Ninny Twins. If Bill Clinton did what Paula Jones alleges, the question is not why he was reckless but why he behaved like a pig. And the issue is not the absence of political foresight, but the consideration of a personality so malformed that it allows its possessor to behave, well, like a pig. After that, the only remaining question is how and why Evan Thomas’s judgment of unambiguously base human behavior became so screwed up and whether he has any idea when it might improve.

If an anonymous American—you know, an “ordinary man”—had done what Bill Clinton is accused of doing, would Evan Thomas, or anyone else, make the point that Mr. Ordinary “could not have contemplated the price he would later pay”? Would Thomas cooperate blindly in the calculated efforts of a powerful and nonobjective collective (like the White House staff) to brand the alleged victim a slut? And finally, under what other conditions would Evan Thomas allow himself to be brought in league with the likes of James Carville?

The attacks of James “Populist and Proud of It” Carville on a working-class Southern woman who had done him no personal harm were sickening in their malice and staggering in their hypocrisy. Like all things in any way connected to Bill Clinton, the attacks were a study in overkill. There is no area of public life in which either of the Clintons, or any of their minions, display the slightest grasp of the value of nuance. Even in the act of assault they reject the efficiency of the shiv in favor of the rawness of the meat ax. However (and not that it’s any consolation), it is the sheer gaudiness of the onslaughts that often makes them backfire. To watch James Carville—a man whose very posture is gratuitous—yap with vicious abandon (which in him seems both practiced and organic, perhaps explaining why he appears insane) about female “trailer trash,” and to watch him do it while professional feminists and other liberal defenders of the underdog either stood mute as stone or joined the chorus—well, it was the sort of flawless display of ideological fraudulence that is hard to ignore. Carville was so politically cynical, so intellectually vulgar, so personally mean that even some in-the-tank journalists seemed slightly squeamish at his performance.

And there things stood—the nervous newsies, the crazed Carville, the contemptuous Clintons—until the American Lawyer published an article by Stuart Taylor in which he accused the media, in the Jones case, of hypocrisy, class and political bias, and the application of a double standard. As coverage of Taylor’s article increased, Carville shut up (all praise be to God), and the Clintons backed off. As for the establishment media, they were cornered and they confessed—but they never quite owned up. After decades of adamant denial, they said, “It’s true; you caught us; we’re snobs.” Then they went on to other things, apparently believing that their admission, having been painful, was a solution.

Or maybe they were just hoping it was a solution because they sense the formidability of their predicament. If the symptoms of your problem are snobbery, narrow-mindedness, and preconception, by what means do you gain insight into the workings of your elitism, bias, and prejudice? And if your environment is full of people just like you, where do you look for a model or guide? It used to be that the media didn’t know that they didn’t know. Now they don’t know what they don’t know. Establishment journalists’ proudest attribute, their professional skepticism, is regularly rendered inoperative by nothing more than a woman’s big hair or a man’s large waistline. That journalists are the last to acknowledge this leaves them without credibility as reporters of fact, and dangerous as judges of truth.

In the end, all of the journalistic breast-beating, self-examination, and tortured analysis lead to exactly . . . nothing. Things are so unchanged, in fact, that the major media are confounded and befuddled, virtually struck dumb by the simple idea that the ends do not justify the means. And as the major media finally begin to grasp, dimly, that the public is real serious about this ends/means business (no, you are not exempt because of your holy journalistic calling), journalists are again getting defensive and resentful and mightily impatient with their consumers’ stupidity. So we are back where we started, and it is the logic of vanity that has brought us here: Why struggle with humility when it’s so much more fun to be a know-it-all?

Today, the public character of elite journalists is marked by the temperament of movie stars, the double-talk of politicians, and the grandiosity of lawyers. Their primary function seems to be the contribution of themselves to the nation’s stock of divas, weenies, and narcissists. And since they do all this while disdaining the ordinary American, one wonders how they will keep a straight face when, any day now, they begin pontificating on PBS about their “responsibility to the public.” But maybe a dose of James Collins’s realism is in order here. Perhaps it is only in films that adversity, or anything else, makes the ordinary journalist noble and merciful.