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The shock of the few.

You'd think the media would get tired of it. It's more or less the same story every time some deranged youth takes a gun to school and starts shooting the place up--like Kipling's Kurrum Valley scamp "who knows no word of moods and tenses"
 But, being blessed with perfect sight, Picks off our messmates left and

What "causes" such behavior? Is it the availability of guns? In the case of "Andy" Williams of Santana High School, California, this was a less favored explanation than usual--perhaps because the gun he used was of a type (a .22 revolver) of which no one had as yet thought to propose the banning. But there were plenty of the usual suspects left. Is it our "violent" culture and images of "violence" on television? Or a more general moral decline? Is it uncaring parents or unobservant teachers? Or are we thrown back upon the "bad seed" explanation? Young Mr. Williams, it appears, had been the victim of bullying, so there were seemingly endless opportunities to discuss what might, assuming that the laws of human nature were repealed, be done about that.

Yet through it all, the media never cast its eyes down to look at the explanation lying coyly under its nose. The kids do it at least in part because doing it makes them instant celebrities. I remember once when I was a teacher asking a class of sixteen-year-olds how many of them thought they would one day be famous. All but two or three hands went up. Even if they did not admit it, the youth culture's devotion to celebrity is well-established. And who is the principal manufactory of celebrities? Why, the media themselves, of course. Thus, the more that the gatekeepers of the popular culture agonize about school shootings, and therefore publicize school shootings, the more school shootings there are likely to be. This seems to me axiomatic. Kids respect celebrity if they respect nothing else, and what did "Andy" crave more than respect?

But the reason we don't notice this explanation is that the meretricious values of the youth culture are increasingly also those of the general culture and, a fortiori, of the journalistic culture. Can any star-struck teenager be more celebrity-worshipping than those same journalists and pundits who profess to be mystified by the actions of star-struck teenagers? No wonder the quality doesn't occur to them as an explanation. They would have to suspect themselves. But, as in so many other cases, the myth of journalistic objectivity and neutrality helps to preserve their invisibility to themselves. Naturally they assume that they are observers and not participants in the processes that lead either to school-shootings or to political acts. Their quasi-sacerdotal function in the culture, as invented by themselves, depends on it. Not that that makes it true.

Actually, not much about journalists' self-conception is true. For people who pride themselves on their fearless pursuit of the truth, they seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-deception. Throughout the presidency of Bill Clinton, for example, they assiduously pretended to believe that he meant what he said, even though they did not believe it. You could tell by the quality of the media outrage when, in August 1998, the president was forced by the DNA evidence to admit that he had been lying to the country about Monica Lewinsky for seven months. Only people who had been desperately trying to believe him and not quite succeeding up until that point could have been so bitterly and vocally disappointed. The more they complained of having been deceived the less deceived they are likely in fact to have been.

There was plenty of evidence before Monica, after all, of Clinton's goatish disposition, and a prima facie implausibility to the alternative explanation that a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy had somehow recruited this brainless and even unattractive political groupie to make false charges to the independent counsel. Surely, if the VRWC had been behind Monica it wouldn't have been behind Monica, if you see what I mean. But the will to believe in Bill Clinton was strong--as it again became obvious when the press's outrage didn't outlast his expression of contrition at a National Prayer Breakfast on September 11.

Once again they believed him! He had only to say he was sorry for what he had done, and the press was instantly as willing to believe him as it had been in the first place to believe that he hadn't committed the offense for which he now professed to be sorry. They were, as someone pointed out at the time, like a deceived but devoted wife--who is therefore self-deceived. How many times in the past, one wondered, had he already said he was sorry to Mrs. Clinton for similar offenses? And how many times had she believed him? But where Hillary Clinton's credulity could be attributed to wifely love and loyalty and was really--if that is what it was--rather touching, the media's renewed willingness to believe could not be, whatever else it was, a product of their devotion to the truth.

Nor was it even, necessarily, a devotion to Bill Clinton. Rather, I think, it came about because Clinton, more than any other politician in recent years, had the knack of flattering the media's preconceptions and prejudices about the world, from their dismissiveness towards the Republican "Clinton-haters" to their endlessly repeated characterization of him as a "New Democrat" or (always a great favorite) "our first `baby-boomer' president" He knew how to live up to the media's expectations of him--which included, in the end, even the expectation that he would misbehave sexually from time to time--without ever becoming merely predictable. Yet to see that the source of his political power was his ability to manipulate the media would have been impossible, since it would have been to see that the media were not disinterested parties, any more than they are in the school shootings.

For it was not only in the Lewinsky affair that the media's self-deception was obvious. Patently absurd and meaningless rhetoric, made to order by the White House focus-group factory, was routinely passed along as if there were something more to it than sloganeering. In many cases, as for example Clinton's announcement in the State of the Union address in 1996 that "the era of big government is over" the slogans were treated as big news. Even when, after his disgrace later that year, Dick Morris made clear to everyone what his methods had been, there was no corresponding disgrace among the press corps who had pretended to themselves and others that a more traditional form of political communication was taking place whenever Clinton opened his mouth.

So when he pardoned Marc Rich and the others whose only visible qualification for a pardon was having given large sums of money to the Democratic Party, or his wife's senatorial campaign, or the Clinton library, there was a certain familiarity to the outrage. The press had been deceived in their man again! Fool me twice, as they say, shame on me. So suddenly there was more than enough outrage to go around. They were outraged about the government property that the Clintons took as their own from the White House. They were outraged by the pranks that the Clintonites had reportedly played on the incoming Bush administration. They were even outraged about the alleged looting of Air Force One, which the Bush people insisted had never happened. As George Will said: "I love liberals. The Clintons are guilty of lying, perjury, obstruction of justice, and they give them a pass. But let them steal the toaster, and they say, `That's it!'"

One can only suppose that the media's willingness to believe what it wants to believe is even more highly developed than most people's because those who are part of the media culture spend so much of their time congratulating themselves on their fearless devotion to the truth. In any case, it was hardly surprising that their willingness to believe in George W. Bush would not be so tenacious. Bush, whom according to Bill Minutaglio's biography a senior Republican official once described as "our Clinton" had known the right note to strike throughout the campaign with his tedious--as tedious as Clinton's nonsensical "bridge to the twenty-first century'-- insistence on his commitment to bipartisanship. Like Clinton, he was flattering a venerable media prejudice that a considerable portion of the country's problems could be laid at the door of something they called "partisan politics."

As if there were any other kind! But just as they more or less constantly deceive themselves, they naturally prefer that politicians should also deceive themselves, or at least everybody else, by pretending that they abominate partisanship and really believe in nothing that their party proposes for the public good so much as they believe that they ought to be nice to the other party. But there is a long tradition in the overwhelmingly Democratic media culture of regarding this kind of bipartisanship as basically a one-way street. Democrats, being the home team, are never as "partisan" as Republicans, so it follows that, in order to reduce or eliminate partisanship it is necessary for Republicans to come around to the Democratic point of view on any matter requiring--as which matter does not require? -- the purge of partisanship.

Thus it was that George W. Bush's father ran his presidency onto the rocks. In order to impress the Democrats and the media with his bipartisan spirit, he broke his "read my lips: no new taxes" pledge of 1988. Now in somewhat the same way, after the rival tax-cut proposals had been made so much of during the campaign, and after a brief infatuation with the non-Clinton in the White House, the media suddenly began to think that, having won the election, Bush could be expected to demonstrate his bona fides as the bipartisan figure he had promised to be and accordingly make his tax cut look more like the Gore proposal than the Bush proposal.

Thus, after the House of Representatives passed his proposal, Alison Mitchell of The New York Times warned that
 President Bush's victory in Congress today may have come at a cost. The
 bitter House debate on the first phase of his tax cut and the near
 party-line vote that followed made it harder for Mr. Bush to argue
 convincingly that he would make good on his signature pledge to change the
 partisan tone in the nation's capital.

Lisa Myers of NBC News used almost the same words. "This victory comes at a price" she said, citing the sacrifice of Bush's putative bipartisanship in order to enforce a party-line vote.

Such was the consensus, particularly among the television news shows. Dan Rather reported that the victory in the House was "an important step forward for President Bush's big tax-cut plan" while being "a big step away from bipartisan cooperation in Congress." Rather's colleague John Roberts was more dramatic, citing "criticism" (provenance unspecified) "that his pledge to change the tone in Washington was shattered on the House floor." Or, as Linda Douglass said to Charles Gibson: "So much for bipartisanship, Charlie. The Republicans rammed through this tax cut, and all but ten Democrats voted against it, and the Democrats are accusing President Bush of reneging on his promise to change the tone in Washington."

Not coincidentally, these words were echoed by Richard Gephardt, the leader of the Democrats in the House, who said that "The President came to town saying, `I'm a uniter not a divider, and I'm willing to incorporate ideas from the other side into compromise solutions? That is not happening." Now is it possible for us to believe that Gephardt himself believed for one single moment that it would happen? Is it possible to believe that the network news reporters believe that Gephardt believed it? Or even that they had believed it themselves? I don't think so. But like all bipartisanship, it so flattered the media's simple-minded view of what politicians ought to be saying that they wanted to believe it.

Of course they don't want to believe in Bush as much as they wanted to believe in Clinton. You cannot imagine the press defending Bush if, as seems fortunately unlikely, he had a Monica of his own. But Bush has proven as skilled as Clinton at knowing what the press wants to believe and for the most part acting--apart from the occasional necessary lapse, as in the case of the tax cut, into partisanship--as if he believed it himself. Even the Republican leadership in Congress, so notoriously ham-handed with its public relations in the Gingrich days, has learned the trick of it, as we found at the third annual "civility retreat" which took place at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia at virtually the same moment as bipartisanship was being proclaimed dead in Congress.

Naturally the retreat was reported as having been overshadowed by the partisan vote on the tax cut. Philip Shenon's report in The New York Times began with the comments of three Democratic members who claimed to have skipped the retreat for this reason. Though a third of the House, evenly divided between Republican and Democrat, turned up at the Greenbrier, Shenon noted that "the turnout was slightly smaller than hoped for, the result of a boycott by at least a handful of Democrats angry about the events last week on Capitol Hill." Minority Leader Gephardt showed up "though he said this would be his last retreat" reported Shenon. "He added that `bipartisanship is over-- not that it ever began.'"

This, clearly, was the officially disgruntled Democratic point of view, and as usual, the Times shared it. Reduced to a brief paragraph in Shenon's report was the news that a study by the Annenberg School of Communications of the University of Pennsylvania released at the retreat had "found that civility in the House had increased in the last two years. The researchers based the finding on, among other things, the number of times that vulgarities and insults like `traitor' and `crackpot' were uttered on the House floor."

Could it be that Congress as well as our corporate and media culture are falling into line with the American national religion of "nice"? Or is it, perhaps, more likely, that Congress knows better how to manipulate the media--like the presidents of both parties and pretty much everybody else except the media themselves. Of course, they miss the story of their own manipulation for the same reason that they miss the story of the school shootings: monstrous self-conceit. And one must suppose that, like the endless stories about why kids shoot each other, the endless stories about the need for bipartisanship in Washington will go on, well, endlessly.

James Bowman is the American editor of the London Times Literary Supplement.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bowman, James
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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