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Political Riptides

Searching for solid information in the media's sibling rivalry.

September 20, 1998|Ann Douglas | Ann Douglas, who teaches cultural history at Columbia University, is the author of "Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s." She is working on a book about Cold War culture

NEW YORK — The most profligate periods of public scandal and sensational trials in 20th-century American history have been the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1990s, the three decades that witnessed the birth of a new medium. New media technology multiplies the possibilities of attention, the media's stock in trade; when people invent new tools, they will maximize the situations in which they can best test and display them.

The law of media development has always been sibling rivalry. Unlike the traditional arts, all the media, from movies to radio to television and now the Internet, have aimed for something like a universal audience, an empire that, by definition, any newer medium threatens. Silent movies lost audiences to radio as radio subsequently did to TV.

Yet before the advent of television, no single medium dominated the market. TV's protracted hegemony coincided with America's post-World War II superpower status, imposing a kind of pax technologica, a truce in media land, whose duration exactly paralleled that of the Cold War, just as online's dawning ascendancy seems synonymous with the age of free-trade globalism that succeeded it. Media ethics get rewritten at just the historical moment when a new contestant upsets the media order. In the 1920s, radio and the tabloids challenged the older print press, which responded by allocating almost as much space to coverage of Leopold and Loeb, the Hall-Mills murder case and the Scopes trial as the newer media did. (It was a Daily News reporter, however, who in 1928 snapped, with a secret camera strapped to his ankle, a picture of convicted murderer Ruth Snyder being electrocuted. It was published on the front page, under the headline "Ruth Fries!")

The 1950s brought the sensational trials of Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the Kefauver hearings on organized crime. Virginia Hauser, believed to be a courier for the underworld, appeared before the Kefauver Committee in New York dressed in a silver mink stole and matching gray gloves. Thirty million TV viewers witnessed her outburst at the photographers who blocked her path: "You bastards, I hope a goddamn atom bomb falls on every goddamn one of you!"

Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a firm believer in conspicuous shows of excessive documentation who would have heartily approved independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's delivery of 36 boxes of evidence to Congress before a host of TV cameras, managed to feed and bully all the media at once--playing press and radio off against their new rival, television.

Yet, the accusation-happy '50s look restrained next to the 1990s. Despite the fact that McCarthy brought lawsuits as well as charges of communism against them, newspapers adapted their coverage policies to circumvent him. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy on the CBS show "See It Now," and the three major networks stopped granting him free air time to answer his opponents. The most shocking word, the loudest voice, the most flamboyant image, did not automatically win.

Last January, when Linda R. Tripp's tapes of Monica S. Lewinsky's telephone conversations about her affair with the president were allegedly leaked by Starr's office to the news media, the media made a momentous decision, namely to grant a story founded at that moment in rumors and ill-gotten second- or third-hand information--soft news by any previous definition--the kind of saturation coverage usually accorded, at least by the media elite, only to hard news. An undeclared war between the news media and their audience began. The media insisted that they determined what was real news, that this was information which should change public views about President Bill Clinton's fitness for office.

With equal tenacity, however, a majority of the public has continued to maintain via the polls, their only weapon in this uneven contest, that while their view of Clinton the man has suffered, their view of Clinton the president has not.

By way of self-justification, the media point to the fact that Americans turn in droves to coverage they say they don't wish to see. Because people invariably slow down to look at accidents on the freeway, are we to conclude they want accidents to happen or that it is the business of highway authorities to intensify their effect and incidence? Extracting a presidential apology by sanctimonious editorializing and outright harassment became ever more important. If Clinton apologized, the media did not have to.

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