Condit ‘show’ was journalistic perversity

By Robert Jensen

Published in Newsday · August, 2001

[This article appeared in Newsday, August 27, 2001, p. 20-A.]

IS REP. Gary Condit a creep? In my book, without a doubt.

Did Connie Chung do a lousy job interviewing the California Democrat on Prime Time Thursday? As a journalist and journalism professor, I say, without a doubt.

But that’s all relatively trivial. What we should take away from this “ground-breaking” interview and the saturation media coverage of the case of Chandra Levy is that we live in a truly pathetic political and media culture. The parasitical relationship between politicians and journalists has reached such depths that it is no longer clear which of them benefits more, who is being exploited or who deserves the most contempt.

It is time for all of us to register our disgust with the whole enterprise and, as citizens, demand more of journalists and politicians. The coverage has gone so far that it is past the point of jokes; we are now in an era of journalism-as-self-parody.

Gary Condit has a lot of people to answer to – his family, the police and his constituents. Unless we learn later that he has been involved in foul play, he is on the hook to explain what appears to have been an inappropriate relationship. No news there; older men with power in this culture routinely exploit their positions in personal relationships with younger women.

His potential crimes, or sins or misjudgments are at best grist for local coverage in his district and a cop story in the District of Columbia. Instead, the entire nation has been treated all summer to something too depraved to be called a media circus; such a description does a disservice to even the grimiest backlot circus and grifters.

Everyone agrees – including, it seems, most of the journalists covering the story – that the coverage has been excessive and sensational. Chung’s interview, in which she seemed more intent on playing some caricatured version of a prosecutor from a television drama (“Did you kill Chandra Levy?”) than a journalist, was perhaps a bit absurd, but not that much more than the routine coverage of the case.

But there is a more central point: It’s not that the coverage of the story has been too much, but that it’s not an ongoing story at all. It’s not a question of how bad the coverage is, but of why there is national coverage at all.

Why did a congressman with no serious role in national politics end up on national television? Why should people in Idaho and Georgia care what this guy has to say about his current predicament?

They shouldn’t, and Condit shouldn’t have been on TV. One has to assume he didn’t want to be. So, why didn’t he do the sane thing: book a high-school auditorium in his district, call a town meeting, and answer the questions of his constituents?

The answer is probably simple: Once caught up in the machine, all the players – journalists and politicians alike – go on a kind of autopilot and take their places in the show. In such a heavily mediated political culture and such a heavily commercialized media system, this race to the bottom is inevitable. Whatever better instincts politicians might have to serve the public interest get eroded, in part by the power of the media beast and its incessant quest for material that titillates. And whatever professional instincts journalists have that could stave off this sensationalism are trounced by the demands of the folks watching ratings and counting the money.

It is now common in political circles to refer to the United States as an imperial power. It’s getting increasingly difficult not to think of the media – journalistic and entertainment – as the provider of the circus that distracts the people, the modern home of our gladiators. And it makes one wonder how long our empire has to run.

In case anyone has missed it, there are some not-so-trivial issues floating around in Washington that matter to regular folks. How about the question of whether right-wing forces are going to be successful in gutting Social Security? Or the question of how to balance short-term profits and long-term environmental health? Or the question of whether the United States feels any need to be part of an international community?

Journalists too often try to slip by with the cynical excuse that they are giving people what they want. Politicians complain they have to follow the media’s agenda.

As a journalist, my instinct is to side with my craft. But that is increasingly difficult. These days, I find myself siding with citizens and hoping that social movements in the United States, no matter what their primary issue, can rally to demand more of media and the politicians.