Can We Know Her?

The 1988 presidential campaign is generally thought of as a low point in political journalism, if not national politics itself, during which coverage of politics was gravitating more and more toward polls, cheap symbolism—a ride in a tank, a visit to a flag factory, and Willie Horton—and even tawdrier matters. It was in the 1988 campaign that a candidate, Gary Hart, was first asked directly by a reporter, Paul Taylor of The Washington Post, if he had cheated on his wife. Because of what was widely seen as increasing superficiality and partisanship in the press, we were introduced around this time to a figure known as the media ethicist, who would be called upon to keep watch on this degeneration of coverage, as then Los Angeles Times press critic Tom Rosenstiel did in September 1992. When the 1992 campaign began, he wrote,

the press vowed to do things differently. In short, journalists in both print and broadcast were influenced by criticism that the media bore some blame for the failure in 1988 to squarely address the nation’s most pressing issues….

Those “pressing issues” in 1992 turned out to include Bill Clinton’s sex life, the state of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage, and a land investment they’d made in 1978 in which they’d done nothing wrong (except lose money), even though their misguided involvement in Whitewater set off an investigation that very nearly led to his downfall. By the time special prosecutor Kenneth Starr issued his report in September 1998, the political and journalistic cultures that had reigned for many years had undergone dramatic changes. Highly partisan men like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were running the House—and in the Senate, Trent Lott now sought to ape them.

Gingrich’s rise brought new power to a constellation of right-wing groups dedicated to dismantling both the federal government and the Clinton presidency. On the journalism front, The New York Times and The Washington Post now increasingly shared their power to shape opinion with three all-news cable channels—one of them, Fox, an obvious servant of the Republican Party—and The Drudge Report, from which journalists at the major dailies were now taking their lead. “The press” had now become “the media,” and the new beast needed constant feeding.

These changes allowed the story of the Clintons’ alleged crimes and misdeeds to catch fire in a way it otherwise never could have. The allegations didn’t end up amounting to much: Bill Clinton left office immensely popular and accepted by most Americans as a successful president, and Hillary Clinton’s long-term future in politics, whether as senator or president, seems secure, and she currently leads all the other Democratic presidential candidates in the polls. But this is small recompense for our having had to endure the years wasted because of nasty and largely baseless attacks on the Clintons.

Carl Bernstein, in A Woman in Charge, and Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., in …

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