Ten years ago this week, a grand jury was listening to Linda Tripp’s tapes of her conversations with Monica Lewinsky.
In the present, New York’s governor has just resigned over the revelation he hired prostitutes.
In both cases, I think even someone like me who thinks the law should not control consensual sex can rightly take great joy in seeing hypocritical politicians hoist on their own petards. Spitzer has prosecuted prostitution rings, when not busy harassing Wall Street firms for things that in some cases aren’t even illegal. Similarly, Clinton encouraged the enforcement of sexual harassment laws, which make possible things like the Paula Jones suit (he implied she ought to consider servicing him in part because he had influence over her boss), which led to his lies to the grand jury about Lewinsky (and it was this lying under oath, not the moral error of marital infidelity, that led to his impeachment, just in case that’s still unclear to anyone — such as useless ABC News legal “analyst” Jeffrey Toobin, who said at the time that the impeachment outcome should hinge on how much Americans care about adultery — but for some thoughts more directly concerning adultery’s relationship, if any, to law, see my recent post on that topic, from the day before the Spitzer revelations).
But in 1998, despite working at ABC News during the Lewinsky hubbub, I stayed focused on economic matters, like my Stossel Unit co-workers. Indeed, when one of my fellow Phillips Foundation fellows said around that time that he feared the public’s attitude was “As long as the economy’s doing great, who cares how many blowjobs the President’s getting?” I couldn’t help feeling that that was actually a pretty apt summary of my whole political philosophy, and it still is.
Politicians are, statistics show, more likely to be criminals than the general population, and the idea that the fate of the nation hinges on the state of their private consciences is nonsense that exalts them to the status of monarchs or popes. The more conscious the sheep-like general public is of the depravity of their wolfish overlords, the better. Far from needing to put an end to public cynicism, as pols and pundits are constantly saying, we need to put an end to thinking of political leaders as moral leaders. Think of them instead as the organized crime heads they are and we may yet stand a chance of reducing their power accordingly and making the public sufficiently wary.
Mullahs, kings, slave-overseers, senators, presidents, mob bosses, representatives, governors, commissars — may they all be forgotten, archaic terms very, very soon (in grand historical terms). Free people, by definition, do not have rulers. (New York, at least, no longer has Eliot Spitzer, and good riddance.)
And again, I say all this in reaction to thugs and lawbreaking hypocrites, not because adultery per se renders someone unfit for office — though there is something to be said for taking the ideal of vow-keeping seriously despite discouraging stats on the ideal’s flouting. As William F. Buckley wrote back around the time of the Lewinksy scandal, we should not condemn as useless all ideals that get violated or that tend to lead to Victorian hypocrisy — any more than we should stop treating murder as a crime simply because some people get away with it or stop frowning upon rudeness because it persists. There is something to be said for at least making an effort instead of abandoning the fight.
But if Lewinsky wasn’t foremost in my mind in early 1998, what was? For one thing, like a lot of media folk, I was fascinated by the way mainstream media treated DrudgeReport.com as a sort of unwelcome infection for getting to the Lewinsky story before they did. They could condemn the upstart site as tabloidy and gossipy — and libertarian — all they liked, but clearly what they really meant was: Damn him for getting to the story before us. And the plight of mainstream media, thank goodness, has only gotten worse since.
Having worked in TV news, few things could be more satisfying to me than watching the artificial walls of mainstream media dominance crumble. Yet certain myths about media persist. One is that the media, being owned by corporations, must therefore be conservative. This myth is no longer swallowed by the general populace, I think, but is still fervently believed by a lot of leftists, most of them too fringey to have had many close-up encounters with mainstream media. If they actually worked at a big media company like ABC News, they’d know that virtually every employee there is a Democrat, many flouting rules about involvement in political campaigns and activist causes, consciously motivated, as one ABC News exec put it in a rally-the-troops speech, by the desire to get viewers so outraged that “they stand up from their sofas and demand legislation,” and believe me, he didn’t mean tax cuts. It was taken for granted that reform = liberal legislation, corporate money = corruption, government work = “public service,” environmental organization = altruism, and so on. (Years later, I would even meet a New York Times reporter who both organized and reported on antiwar rallies, to give you some idea how flimsy the wall between left-wing activism and journalism — which is in turn “the rough draft of history” — really is.)
If anyone on this planet is still capable of watching TV news and concluding that it is either conservative or middle-of-the-road, that is purely because left-wing ideas, after decades of this video drivel, have become the mainstream view or because the viewer is himself so far to the left that, as Stalin might have put it, Mensheviks seem disappointingly right-wing compared to Bolsheviks. Those truly desperate to maintain the illusion that there is a substantial right-wing presence on TV or in film will always trot out the example of Fox News, of course (with its ratings dwarfed by the old networks), which is a bit like saying that the presence of one conservative columnist at a college makes the campus “right-wing” (and indeed that’s about all it takes to make University of Chicago and Dartmouth “right-wing” in some critics’ minds, after all).
As Lenin so rightly said, capitalists will sell socialists the rope with which the capitalists later get hanged, and as long as simplistic left-liberal narratives appeal to inattentive viewers’ intuitions about how the world works — and appeal to leftist TV producers’ notions of what constitutes crusading journalism and social justice — those media corporations that the leftists fear will go right on pumping the public’s minds full of left-wing propaganda. I’ve heard them planning it, from producers gleefully debating how best to “nail Gingrich to the wall” shortly after the Republicans took Congress to other producers discovering a corrupt judge but declining to report on him because he was Hispanic and they didn’t want to make non-whites look bad, since retrograde conservatives might be driven to a racist frenzy by it. (ABC also distributed lists of approved non-white experts in various subjects while I was there in an effort to decrease reliance on white faces in the news, not that I much care about people’s hues, but it was a reminder that the network has higher priorities than learning economics or military history and perhaps the only top-down instructions on what/who/how to report that the organization as a whole received the whole time I was there.)
Being a veteran of six years at ABC News and hearing some ignoramus at a party say the media are conservative (or even non-leftist) is to this day galling and depressing to me in a fashion (though far less severely, obviously) that I imagine it must be galling to survivors of the brutal Chinese Cultural Revolution to hear aging ex-hippies say that Mao loved freedom and tolerance.
If your picture of reality, shaped in part by TV, is a politically-centrist one, know that this centrist impression is the result of a lot of hard-working people trying desperately to spin the events of the day as hard to the left as they possibly can — and this is the best they can do. Just imagine how conservative the truth is, then.
This is not to say the media aren’t in countless ways just-plain-stupid and therefore often ineffectual in pursuing their left-wing agenda. Ratings matter even more to them than promoting regulation and tax hikes, so one could argue that they are certainly capitalist — even hyper-capitalist — in their day-to-day work habits (they’ll take the story of a good-looking, energetic, ignorant young woman over a wrinkled, untelegenic crone with a Ph.D. any day — which is part of the reason the press jumped on the Lewinksy story after years of ignoring all sorts of other Clintonian wrongdoing). But saying that this formal capitalism makes the press non-leftist in content would be like saying The Nation promotes laissez-faire capitalism simply because they worry about their circulation figures. And some media-theory-type leftists really are that stupid, of course. Spare me.
Even the Stossel Unit, self-advertised lone bastion of libertarian thinking that we were at ABC, back when Stossel did one-hour specials (such as that season’s econ primer called Greed) frequently enough to have a sizable staff all to himself instead of primarily being the anchor on the weekly 20/20 broadcast, was usually majority-Democrat (not that I’m saying that’s bad — heterogeneity forces people to think more carefully), simply because there were so few Republicans or libertarians in the whole company. And being the oddballs meant greater scrutiny from the obsessive lawyers, the final hurdle before broadcast, who would want footnotes every time Stossel claimed markets tend to make products and service become more efficient but without blinking would let Barbara Walters “objectively” end a piece about a gun death by asking when Congress would come to its senses and pass anti-gun legislation, as though every viewer regarded guns as clearly evil things, akin to cancer.
And the scariest part of it all is that if you asked most of these TV people if they lean left, they would probably still tell you no and mean it — they aren’t any farther left than all their colleagues, after all, and though they’ve heard of conservatives, those people mostly live out in rural places that don’t much matter — or maybe down on Wall Street, where the TV people may at least have been to a party or two but not too often. So TV people are the norm. The rest of you are just ratings points. And even if you’re a professional economist, your objections to the most recent broadcast don’t really matter that much, since you aren’t charismatic enough to be on TV regularly, and that undermines your credibility. And in any case, you work for a corporation, and don’t the good economists work in academia? At least, the academic ones seem to agree with TV people more (though their predictions are less reliable, oddly), so they must be the good guys. We should put them on TV…
But I don’t mean by any of this to make it sound like my own life was unpleasant: between the trips I’d been taking for work — including visiting places from Chicago to New Orleans and Santa Fe to San Francisco for my research on tradition — and a second trip to London, waking life was good, and in the realm of dreams, where I apparently died — in a dream my left-leaning fellow New York Press veteran Daniel Radosh had that year — I apparently got a nice eulogy from him, so on a personal level, those left-wing media people aren’t so bad, really. And I suppose nice behavior in dreams does count for something (not that Daniel isn’t also nice in real life — and you can see him defending Christian rock, oddly enough, in our April 2 Debate at Lolita Bar, one day after the release of his book on Christian pop culture, Rapture Ready!).
A trickier question, which I was confronted with just a few days ago, is whether acting in a dream counts as acting: I dreamt that I was doing a scene in a movie, and the other actor and I started improvising, and the improvisation included wondering aloud whether we were in the Matrix and then whether our situation was better than being in the Matrix, and it was unclear whether we meant our fictional situation in some virtual reality within our movie or our “real” situation as actors or our “real” situation as actors in a movie that resembled being actors in the movie The Matrix — but of course, in truth, I was simply dreaming anyway — though dreaming is, after all, nature’s virtual reality and not mere wasted time. That was surely the most “meta” dream I’ve had — but in the Retro-Journal chronology, my first encounter with the Matrix lies one year and two entries ahead, in early 1999 — while next week brings the pulse-pounding events of late 1998!