Obsessed with the Hunt : With Media in Unbridled Pursuit, Could Anyone Get Out Alive?

Nicholas von Hoffman, a columnist on the Washington Post during the Watergate investigation, is author of "Citizen Cohn," a life of Roy Cohn, and "Capitalist Fools" (Doubleday). He is now writing a play.

The mass media is into its binge-purge cycle again. The Whitewater scandal, such as it may be, has got the hacks, both print and electronic, in paroxysms of investigative fury and fits of exaggerated reportage. Hare and hounds we go, over the Arkansas countryside, in unbridled pursuit of the presidential couple.

In due course, this excess will be followed by a great trooping to the journalistic wailing wall, where we shall see editors and reporters look at their handiwork and cry out, "Forgive us, we have sinned!" There will be remorseful seminars at the Schools of Journalism and those horrid Centers for the Study of God Knows What, where the men and women of the media will disport in self-recrimination as they delight themselves analyzing their professional faults and playing the guilt game.

Binge-purge. No sooner have we recovered from the maniacally silly coverage of that dysfunctional couple of the year, John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt, than the media hoses down the nation with White- water. Without missing a beat, we've gone from round-table discussions about whether family newspapers should print the word for the male member to the great Arkansas fox hunt. Until the Pulitzer committee meets, we won't know who will be awarded the ears and brush.

Pending the switch to the purge phase, it remains for the rest of us to dope out why the no-longer-quite-so-august New York Times would run a front-page story telling its readers that many years ago Hillary Rodham Clinton made herself and her old man a small pile ($100,000) speculating in pork bellies. Actually, it was cattle futures, but pork bellies sound better and are more in keeping with patronizing evocations of razorbacks, Ozark music and barefoot hillbillies in bib overalls calling, "Sooooeeeee!"

These are the fancies that reinforce the mass media's cliche image of the Clintons' origins in a small, ignorantly corrupt Southern state, where the politicians and the lawyers don't know enough not to do each other favors of doubtful legality and questionable ethics. Well, pardon me! Nothing like that goes on in Sacramento, Calif., or Albany, N.Y.

The gratuitous story about Hillary Clinton's investments was nothing compared with CNN's wacky report taken from a right-wing newsletter, to the effect that the body of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House aide who killed himself, had been moved. That idea seems to have been scotched for the nonce, but in the overly excited air of scoop-happy big-time journalism, you can find more than one person in the pressroom who wonders if the poor man wasn't murdered and is ready, at the drop of the slightest of clues, to suggest the same on camera.

Tabloid journalism is not an affliction specific to our times. In 1924, the New York Graphic--the tabloidest tab there ever was--ran a fake picture of the lady in the scandalous "Peaches" and "Daddy" Browning annulment case standing nude in front of the jury. The great unwashed loved it, and circulation jumped by a quarter-million.

But if mass journalism is much as it has been throughout the 20th Century, class journalism isn't. Why are the once tonier mass-media precincts leering and smearing with the best or worst of the tabs?

In part, it's due to the change in the character of media ownership. The single owners of the past often, though by no means always, put their principles ahead of profits. It's problematic, for instance, if the Washington Post of today--a publicly held enterprise--would have taken the risk of going ahead with the Watergate investigations after the Nixon people had signaled they would be going after the company's TV station licenses. But owner Katharine Graham and editor Benjamin C. Bradlee prized a certain kind of journalism more than money. They had a moral-vocational compass by which to set the newspaper's course.

They didn't have to convene a focus group to tell them what to print or, at least as important, what not to print. It's questionable whether a swashbuckler like Bradlee would be appointed to the editor's chair of a major newspaper today. Those jobs now go to suits with blank faces, people without internal gyroscopes who don't care what the public ought to know--only what they will buy.

Ergo, television, publicly owned and commercially driven, puts on whatever is thought will snag viewers, and print journalism, even the elite dailies, still unable to accept that it is no longer a mass medium, apes TV.

The monkey-see-monkey-do decline of the quality press can be seen not only in the smarmalade with which it slathers its pages, but in vocabulary and syntax. Compared with the up-market newspapers of 75 years ago, the better journals of our era carry less serious news and often present it in the threadbare language of a high-school English book report.

What happened was that even the better-educated reading public is debased by the standard of Nation's Work, or some other of the magazines that Theodore Roosevelt wrote for without benefit of ghost writers. We live and read in a time when dippy celebrity profiles, 10-best lists, low-IQ, hotel-room interviews and health hints constitute the brain food of millions. Of course, they're going to be fed tidbits about the sex lives of the only 50 names and faces they know and recognize. Bottled Whitewater is about all there's a market for.

Newspapers and magazines of 100 years ago differed from each other not only in the social class and educational level they appealed to, but also in party affiliation and ideological slant. Were this 1890, at least you wouldn't get doused with Whitewater foam in newspapers aligned with the Democrats--so you could flee that particular kind of scandal-mongering if you wanted to.

Under other circumstances, an unconscionable mass media is held in check by what it assumes is the outer limits of public tolerance. That tolerance, as far as politicians go, is now limitless. Since our nation's earliest days, Americans have had misgivings about people who practice the political craft. In the last generation, however, the public has been inundated with books and shows depicting politicians as craven, corrupt, scheming, criminal parasites. The aggregate effect is to destroy the barriers that once restrained an all-too-venal press from saying anything that comes into its head about the occupants of the White House.

Alas, Bill Clinton hasn't helped his own cause. His and Hillary's spoof of the insurance industry's ad was mildly funny, but surely there were two others in the White House who could do it if they were going to release it to TV. A President who clowns for home videos invites derision. It's one thing to be a man of the people, another to be the slob next door.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when the 350-pound William Howard Taft moved into the White House, he asked Theodore Roosevelt, who was moving out, if he had any advice. "Yes," Roosevelt replied, "don't let them take a photograph of you playing tennis, Willie." Politicians who do may drown in their own Whitewater.*

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