Commentary: The Chattering Class

by Robert Schmuhl

Embedded in the daily did-he-or-didn’t-he? debates over alleged presidential dalliances is a larger lesson about today’s-and possibly tomorrow’s-news media environment.p. As Bill Clinton prepares for Monday’s grand jury testimony, seemingly endless hours of airtime and countless rolls of newsprint are being devoted to what’s called either the “scandal” or “crisis” involving the president. The recent granting of immunity to Monica Lewinsky and her own grand jury appearance set the stage for Clinton’s day in court, which (ironically, perhaps) will take place via closed-circuit television from the White House.p. While some analysts draw parallels between this presidential investigation and Watergate, a media watcher is more inclined to use the coverage of O.J. Simpson’s trials and tribulations as a point of reference. To be sure, there’s a world of difference between a murder trial and whatever Kenneth Starr is probing.p. But in terms of media mania, comparisons abound. A few years ago, we kept hearing about bloody gloves. Today we can’t escape talk of a stained dress. In both cases, previously unknown people (Kato Kaelin and Linda Tripp come immediately to mind) have become household names-and butts of late-night laughter-as they’ve told what they do and don’t know.p. For our purposes, however, the overall approach of the media to the two stories is most significant. With Simpson before and now with Clinton, there’s so much coverage its sheer volume deserves scrutiny.p. Especially with television yet to a degree with radio and print sources, we’re seeing sustained attention to a continuing narrative-a story, if you will-involving a prominent personality. Although the stakes are different and higher, there’s a sporting-event quality of who’s winning and who’s losing to the proceedings, with the outcome in doubt until a formal decision resolves the matter.p. The running nature of the story takes on importance. Since everyone already knows basic plot elements, media people making decisions about coverage are at liberty to focus on a particular day’s happenings. Increasingly-and here television is critical-this coverage revolves around so-called “experts” duly assembled to discuss the subject du jour.p. To refer to the roving band of recognizable interviewees as “talking heads” is something of a misnomer. More precisely in both the Simpson and Clinton cases, complete with their attendant controversies, these analysts comprise a continuing chorus of conflict, speculating and spinning about information, whether verified or not.p. By emphasizing conflict among the commentariat, the media stress a value of growing significance to today’s definition of news. In a crowded environment, a high-decibel dispute frequently draws a crowd. What’s different now as opposed to when Simpson was forever with us is the proliferation of sources.p. In television, the creation of CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel have dramatically widened the field beyond the traditional networks’ reporting and CNN’s coverage. Discussing the current money-losing state of MSNBC the other day, a business-minded consultant noted, “The biggest problem with what they’re doing is that there are too many news channels chasing too few eyeballs.”p. That chase breeds ever-fiercer competition, which affects the media collectively. As the comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody’s getting into the act.” In such an environment, is it any wonder why a story about a president’s allegedly overactive libido consumes so much attention?p. The Simpson case revolved around violence. Clinton’s at its core is about sex. Violence and sex are two sturdy staples for media narratives-with television, again, a chief instrument for dramatizing such stories, whether they be fictional or rooted in reality.p. By no means is this an argument for news organizations to look the other way when a celebrity is charged with murder or a president is accused of conduct unbecoming a married man, let alone this nation’s leader. Far from it.p. But wall-to-wall, all-Monica-all-the-time coverage and chatter produce overload and overkill-and trivialization through excess. Proportion and perspective get lost in the multi-media frenzy. When a big story becomes the only story for some outlets, is the public being properly served?p. Unfortunately, until producers and editors think beyond the four-sided news box of sex, violence, conflict and celebrity, we can expect spectacles like the Simpson and Clinton cases. And the commentariat will continue to yack away, producing more heat than light.p. Yet, once the smoke clears and Monica’s a memory, people in journalism need to re-consider their role and responsibilities. The new media environment deserves new definitions of news and less predictable approaches to subjects. Ideally, the current chasing after eyeballs and ears will lead to a change of heart-and the mindful realization that moderation is a journalistic virtue worth cultivating.p. p. Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Notre Dame Program in Journalism, Ethics&Democracy.

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