Our zero-tolerance society

DAVID GREENBERG, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of books about Richard Nixon and Calvin Coolidge.

JUST HOURS after devouring Don Imus for his slurs against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, the media pack was already circling fresh quarry. As the leather-faced hate jock fast became a bad memory, the scandal jackals were, by last weekend, starting to chew up a new menu of reprobates, from U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz to Durham County, N.C., Dist. Atty. Michael B. Nifong. Next week, surely, still other offenders will face the media maw.

I am not defending these guys. I believe that the racist Imus -- a third-rate Howard Stern with a middlebrow patina -- deserved to go, and that Gonzales and Wolfowitz (and possibly Nifong) ought to follow. But the speed and ferocity of the attacks against them and the harsh tenor of the discourse -- in these scandals and others like them -- hardly reflect a dispassionate pursuit of justice.

It’s impossible to measure a quality as intangible as public hunger for punishment. But it seems to me that in the last decade or so, a strain of intolerance and vengefulness has spread throughout our culture. Vocal swaths of the public, amplified by the media, have been expressing a primitive, unquenchable desire to inflict stern penalties on supposed wrongdoers -- no matter how obscure the offender or how minor the offense.

We’ve repeatedly failed to distinguish among capital crimes, misdemeanors and innocence. We summon the same level of indignation for someone like Gonzales, who apparently tried to turn a professional corps of attorneys into a partisan prosecutorial force, as for someone like the hapless John Kerry after he bungled a joke about the troops last fall and was almost forced into premature retirement.

In recent years, this hysteria has exacted apologies, resignations and other pounds of flesh from scores of politicians who have committed only minor gaffes -- such as Joe Biden for his clumsy comments about Barack Obama, or Howard Dean for saying in 2003 that Osama bin Laden should get a fair trial. Of course, that may be the price of their vocation. More unseemly is the persecution of other public and semi-public figures, many of whose career choices didn’t commit them to a stint in the media hot seat.


Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, inadvertently plagiarized -- and was mercilessly pilloried in the media for it. She was subsequently removed from various positions, even though she (unlike the unrepentant historian Stephen Ambrose) apologized at length and resolved to make amends. Some moralists called for another eminent historian, Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College, to be sacked for telling tall tales in the classroom about having served in Vietnam; he was suspended for a year. The sloppy, sexist remarks that former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers made about women and science deserved a reprimand, but they didn’t justify the loss of his job, which came fast and furious last spring.

Beyond academia, other notable figures have also suffered vilification out of proportion to their sins. Several years ago, sports fans -- never the most decorous bunch -- erupted in a spasm of rage after Major League Baseball player Roberto Alomar spat at an umpire. It was an act that a few decades ago wouldn’t have even made news -- even though Alomar had already been suspended for five games and apologized to the ump. Other athletes endure opprobrium for lesser slights.

The media have even turned on their own, capitulating to politically motivated campaigns to can respected reporters. After a distinguished career, Dan Rather was prematurely retired because a single ill-sourced news segment brought on the wrath of the right-wing blogosphere. So was CNN executive Eason Jordan, on the basis of unofficial, off-the-record comments he made faulting U.S. forces for killing foreign journalists.

The left, too, pounced opportunistically in pushing for the dismissal of Judith Miller from the New York Times for her credulous stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

From the Salem witch trials to the two “Red scares,” the United States has undergone bouts of manic intolerance worse than today’s. Indeed, ever since World War II, and especially since the 1960s, our culture has grown, on the whole, more lenient. We recognize more basic rights than we used to. In fact, what we’re now experiencing may be a backlash to the rise of toleration.

I first came to view this rigid absolutism as a form of cultural backlash during the drive to impeach President Clinton in 1998. Although I knew that many of Clinton’s tormentors were targeting him for purely cynical reasons, other foes seemed moved by genuine anger. Rationally, they grasped that Clinton’s statements about Monica Lewinsky didn’t bear on the lawsuit against him, yet they insisted, emotionally, that if he’d uttered a single false word under oath -- even an irrelevant word -- he had to be penalized.

That’s because the impeachment was about more than Clinton. It was, I think, an effort to symbolically overturn the 1960s revolution in manners and morals that, in the mental universe of the political right, Clinton appeared to embody. The Republican pundit William J. Bennett published a book that year titled “The Death of Outrage,” suggesting that the public’s capacity for empathy in cases like Clinton’s had risen to dangerous levels, requiring a reversion to earlier, less sophisticated codes of conduct.

If only we had lacked for outrage during Clinton’s presidency! The impeachment debacle, as has become increasingly clear in retrospect, was caused not by a dearth of indignation but a surplus of it -- a spilling over of resentment and moralism. Although public majorities insisted that Clinton deserved no great rebuke, their voices were drowned out by the Inquisition.

Before Clinton, of course, there had been scandals aplenty; it was in the 1980s, after all, that the term “feeding frenzy” was first applied to journalists instead of sharks. But in the 1990s, a mix of factors came together to create our zero-tolerance scandal culture.

The left, displaying what soon came to be called political correctness, ceased forgiving even unintentional slights toward historically oppressed groups. The right -- grappling with the stark reality that many values of the 1960s were probably here to stay -- began seeking scapegoats.

Meanwhile, the advent of the Internet, talk radio and rival all-day cable news stations spawned what critic Frank Rich dubbed “mediathons”: days-long orgies of nonstop, trivializing coverage of sensational events. When centered on personal scandals, logic dictated that they should end with someone’s head on a stick.

Our current zeal to punish may also be related to the terrorist assault of Sept. 11. After that grisly and humiliating day, we all felt a natural desire to strike back and show America’s might. And while in some respects we channeled those feelings into a commensurate response, in the form of the attack on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in another respect we let our hunger for retaliation countenance a largely unrelated invasion of Iraq. We’ve seen the toll taken by our angry, ill-considered lashing out abroad. There’s still time to see the damage being wrought by our lashing out at home as well.