Column: Matt Bai takes on the tabloidization of the political news
Political journalist Matt Bai traces blame for scandal-minded journalism and politics to press coverage of Presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987.
The year was 1987, and Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, aiming for the White House, got sidelined when the Miami Herald caught him in the company of a woman other than his wife. In Matt Bai’s analysis, Hart was done in by a conjunction of sexual politics and a new media romance with “gotcha” reportage. Bai, once with the New York Times Magazine and now chief political columnist for Yahoo News, has revisited that year and that candidate in “All the Truth Is Out, the Week Politics Went Tabloid.” The title comes from a Yeats poem, a favorite of Hart’s. In the book, Bai argues that while Hart lost his shot at the White House in 1987, American politics and journalism lost a great deal more.
You believe that by 1987, the collision of celebrity, politics and journalism was imminent and inevitable. Why?
Watergate, and Vietnam before it, set in motion a lot of changes. Reporters were much more focused on ferreting out character flaws of a candidate, and they were enthralled with the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein. Taking a candidate down, exposing a major scandal are the highest calling in the business.
You have changing attitudes on the left after the rise of feminism — adultery is no longer a laughing matter — and changing attitudes about morality on the right with the rise of the culture warriors behind Ronald Reagan. And you have the birth of the portable satellite dish, which begins to change the definition of news.
In the months before the Hart scandal you have the Jim and Tammy Faye Baker [sex and money scandal]; you have Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, which actually eclipsed the facts of the Iran-Contra scandal. Largely influenced by technology, news was becoming more of a soap opera. These forces were going to bring about a tabloid style of coverage, and someone was going to walk into it, and that was Hart.
Hasn’t American political journalism always been obsessed with soap opera — Andrew Jackson’s wife’s divorce, Grover Cleveland’s supposed illegitimate child.
I think we get into a trap when we start talking about the 1800s. People use it as an excuse to say as it ever was, so shall it ever be. But the media in the 1800s was more like opposition research, created at the behest of parties, not an independent media. I focus on the 20th century because that’s the birth of the political and media universe we know. Back as far as [Franklin] Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, personal behavior and private morality had very little to do with public integrity and our larger notion of character in public officials.
After the fact, we as an industry erected all kinds of rationales for tabloid-style reporting. We say, “Well, it’s not the sex, it’s the lie,” and “If he’ll lie to his wife, he’ll lie to the rest of us,” which is a flawed concept. Or “It’s out there already, and therefore we have a responsibility to cover it.”
All of that was rationalization for the fact that we were just carried away and didn’t think deeply about the implications. It’s not just about a sex scandal, it’s about the rise of the scandal culture, “gotcha,” reductive reporting that tries to define a candidate’s character by the worst moment of the week or of their life. It starts from the premise that we know you are in some way a fatally flawed hypocrite, and our job is to figure out what makes you a hypocrite and present it to voters.
That’s so corrosive. Sometimes a person’s character really is waiting to be exposed, but for most of the life of the country, character and morality and fitness to serve were complex and were judged in the context of an entire life or a larger public record.
Do we pay a price for this kind of journalism?
How many people, how many public servants have we drummed out of politics for not very compelling reasons? How many people have we kept on the sidelines because they don’t want to subject themselves and their families to an unendurable process? And how many people have we allowed to serve because they’re compelling personalities but don’t have any clue about what they would do to govern? You can’t lament events in our politics, and challenges unmet, and not face the reality of trivial [political] dialogue and often trivial political coverage, because they’re related.
You recount a sit-down with John Kerry where he’s anticipating you might make a big deal out of the kind of water he drinks, so he points out that it’s “plain old American water.” It was painful to read.
Part of the reason I was moved to write this book is because I’d spent so much time sitting across the table from candidates who saw me as a hired assassin. And it was hard to blame them.
You describe journalists laying the blame on Hart for forcing them to write unsavory stories.
A big part of that is this myth that he challenged the media to follow him around. [Hart made such a remark to a New York Times reporter, but it was widely known only after the Miami Herald began following Hart.] Because of Hart’s refusal to share details of his private life or blame himself, it was his fault that suddenly private lives were public; it was his fault that suddenly we had this tawdry discussion in our politics. It’s unfair. It was happening anyway.
Does all this account for the public distrust and disgust toward politicians?
I think so. For 30 years, the media have basically signaled to voters that all politicians are dishonest losers, and we’ve enabled politicians to manipulate the system by impugning the character of their opponents.
Nowadays talking about sex in politics gets more hits than economic policies. And it’s cheaper than real reporting.
The technology has obviously intensified this. Sometimes people say “The public demands this.” There’s no Pew Research poll that will tell you this is what the public wants. I think they’ve had enough.
Can any news outlet not cover these scandals? If we don’t, we’re accused of covering up.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in a story where if you respond, you’ve created a story and if you don’t respond, you’re hiding something.
I don’t think the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times covers every scandal. It’s more possible now than in 1987, when there were [only] three networks and a handful of national newspapers.
In this media environment, you have to be concerned about your core readers, your core viewers. Sometimes, chasing news to the bottom alienates people who are reading you every day. We exercise judgment and responsibility in almost every other facet of our jobs. Someone decides what goes on the front page or what goes inside, what goes deeper into the website. Only in the realm of scandal and salaciousness do we decide we have no judgment to exercise, and really it’s just our job to give it all to the voters. We are gatekeepers. I don’t think we should shrink from it.
What are the prospects for change in journalism and politics?
I didn’t write the book as a manifesto. But I’m always optimistic. Younger reporters come to the business with a much more critical view of how we practice political journalism, and they know something needs to change.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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