Last spring, ABC News sent movie heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to interview Bill Clinton for an Earth Day special, a decision which reflected a lovely symmetry: In terms of human maturation, the 25-year-old actor and the 54-year-old President are approximately the same age (19).
Symmetry aside, all hell broke loose. The resultant tempest, played out over several weeks, was classic: full of irony aplenty, hypocrisy galore, and displays of ego so boundless that only celebrities could be the source.
The story goes that when ABC’s veteran correspondents got wind of the DiCaprio/Clinton interview, they pitched a fit. Oh my, there was displeasure. It seems that having Mr. DiCaprio interview Mr. Clinton on Issues of Importance had violated that holy of holies, journalistic credibility—a commodity that heretofore had been, as every news consumer in America knows, absolutely rock solid and angel pure until young Leo winged in from Hollywood to defile the temple. (Are you laughing yet?)
Let us take a closer look at the ABC lineup that got so indignant at the prospect of a punk actor encroaching on its pristine turf. First, there is Sam Donaldson, whose preparation for his Sunday show This Week appears so superficial and meager that every question he asks and every observation he makes can be counted on, unfailingly, to be the wordiest possible example of the previous week’s received wisdom. Donaldson’s Sunday partner is Cokie Roberts, whom I have come to think of as Miss Cokie because she is given to rolling her eyes and announcing how “mothers would handle it,” regardless of the topic being discussed. Roberts is the June Cleaver of American journalism, and most Sundays, she looks like it’s all she can do to keep from pointing a finger and sputtering, “Sam, go to your room!”
Sharing the list with Sam and Miss Cokie is ABC’s anchor-god, Peter Jennings, a man whose on-air urbanity has evolved over the years into genuine hauteur, as he gives off unmistakable hints of barely controlled disdain for every political conservative who has walked the face of the earth since the beginning of time.
And let us not forget Diane Sawyer, she of the wow-have-I-scored “interview” with six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, an event that was redefined as a “visit” after being roundly criticized as exploitative. No matter. The important thing was how empathic, how downright sweet, Sawyer appeared as she sat on the floor, the better to “relate” to little Elian.
Finally, we have arrived at Barbara Walters. In this age of celebrity journalism practiced by newspeople who want to function as hookers while being perceived as virgins, it is understandable that Walters enjoys a status even greater than Diane Sawyer’s while at the same time conducting interviews that are cheesier than Sawyer’s. It was Barbara Walters, you’ll recall, who asked the questions that revealed the delusional emotional workings of Monica Lewinsky.
Finding himself surrounded by these very important employees with their very important concerns about very important issues of journalistic integrity, ABC News President David Westin sought to calm his corps of prima donnas by sending out an e-mail explaining that management most definitely had not sent Leonardo DiCaprio to the White House for a real-deal interview because, as he put it, “nobody is that stupid.”
That statement proved to be both an intentional lie and the kind of misrepresentation of reality that results from isolation, insular thinking, and professional conceit. The lie was the claim that DiCaprio had gone to the White House for no more than a “walk-through.” (Representatives of both the actor and the President adamantly insist otherwise.) The misrepresentation of reality was that nobody in big-time news is “that stupid.” The fact is, they are that stupid all the time. American journalism has declined to the point where its main imperatives now seem limited to creating “news” by taking and publicizing political polls, which can then be used to influence (rather than reflect) public opinion; and shoving microphones in the faces of grieving citizens to question how they “feel” about their child being killed, their home washing away, or their sudden affliction with some deadly disease. With few exceptions, what isn’t shallow in their coverage is biased; and what isn’t biased is prurient. This being the journalistic environment, what’s the difference whether Donaldson interviews Clinton or DiCaprio interviews Clinton—or whether Donaldson and Clinton interview DiCaprio?
The ideal coda to the ABC flap arrived a week after the story broke, in the form of the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner. There, President Clinton told elaborate jokes at ABC’s expense, while David Westin, looking green around the gills, pretended to be good-naturedly amused. To round things out, there was also much joshing about “cover-ups,” along with many humorous references to the presidential travails of the past year. Perhaps the evening’s most memorable moment centered on a joke that had the President seeking to end racism by asking a woman to remove her clothes and get “naked”—a joke to which the crowd of politicians and independent journalists responded with uproarious laughter, with no one laughing more uproariously than Bill Clinton himself In other words, what was, little more than a year ago, a disgrace, a scandal, and a national trauma, was now, in this roomfull of big dogs and insiders, nothing more than a source of mutually self-validating entertainment.
After this lavish press dinner—which received fairly extensive television and print coverage—Chris Matthews, host of CNBC’s Hardball, asked Newsweek reporter Howard Lineman if watching the spectacle of journalists and elected officials getting off on each other might make the average citizen uneasy. Fineman seemed not to understand the question. As far as he was concerned, a tradition had been honored, the President had been hilarious, and everyone present had had a ball. So where was the problem?
But the question Matthews raised was relevant, especially for journalists who claim to be concerned about both the rapidly blurring line between news and entertainment and the increasingly low esteem in which their profession is held by the public. What cable news programming, C-SPAN, and the Internet have given the average American is more than just expanded access; we now get, from time to time, an unobstructed peek behind the wall. And it turns out that what’s behind the wall is stuff like the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, where together the President of the United States and the journalists who cover him (supposedly on our behalf) smugly amuse themselves with jokes not only about the President’s wanton sexual proclivities, but also their shared inclination as newsmen and politicians to lie and then lie about lying.
The problem is not that politicians get together and have a jokefest, or that journalists get together and do the same. The problem is that they do it together—and do it as though they were hidden from the contradictions and hypocrisies that result from such behavior. But journalists are no longer hidden (although they seem the last people to realize this). The irony is that the invasiveness of their professional conduct has rendered their own privacy, like everyone else’s, nonexistent. Everything is visible now, including the social habits of the inside-the-Beltway crowd. And Howard Fineman’s glib obtuseness notwithstanding, the spectacle is repugnant: self-referential, self-congratulatory, almost comically elitist. It isn’t inside-baseball that is on display at events like the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner; it’s inside inside-baseball, a game within a game within a game: How many layers of exclusivity can we create for ourselves?
But the problem for the Sams and Barbaras of the world is that we have reached the point—thanks in part to the Sams and Barbaras of the world—where anyone and everyone thinks he’s a player. Not long after her interview with Barbara Walters, Monica Lewinsky was reported to be interested in a permanent position on Walters’ daily talk show, The View. And why not? What would be required of Miss Lewinsky in that situation is no more than what is required of Walters—or of Peter Jennings or Leonardo DiCaprio: the ability to attract customers and add to the bottom line.
Personally, I’m sorry Lewinsky didn’t get the job. Think of the outright hilarity that would have ensued at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner as Monica regaled her journalistic colleagues (and the President, too, of course), with her unique comedic insights on how to, like, get ahead in life.
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