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Listen to the Polls, not the Politicians

The media have become allies to those who would trivialize elective politics.

September 29, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

What will it take for the top dogs in the media to admit that they got it wrong? Never has there been such a gap separating the blustery pontificators who insist on exploiting Monicagate from the public that doesn't buy it.

A stunning 78% of those polled by the New York Times-CBS stated that "the time, effort and money" spent on Kenneth Starr's investigation of Clinton hasn't "been worth it." But what was a waste of $45 million in taxpayer money was an enormous boon to the business of journalism.

The media are invested in the scandal for reasons compelling to profits and careers but not to the well-being of the country. It's true that an audience can be found for tales relating to sex and it's understandable, if not admirable, that the media have pandered to our most vulgar instincts by exploiting each salacious twist in Starr's soap opera. But don't blame the public when it refuses to accept the significance of that "news" as being a sound basis for demanding the resignation of the president, as more than 80 newspapers have done.

Ironically, the same news organizations that spend enormous amounts on surveys to determine what their readers and viewers want now insist that the public's judgment as to what it wants from a president is all wrong.

In the process, these elite journalists undermine the basic ideal of representative democracy. They deny the citizenry's right to define the public policy agenda and insist that the public is wrong to "only" care about the economy. Even if that simplistic denigration were true, do we the people not have a right to put the economic security of our families at the top of the public agenda? What news organization doesn't put its balance sheet first?

But the polls indicate that the public is making an even more profound statement: that private should be separate from public and a chief executive must be judged primarily by how well he executes the public business.

Clinton's private life was a much-analyzed issue in his two successful runs for the presidency, and clearly the two-thirds of Americans who in virtually every poll now say that they approve of his performance as president got what they wanted. They are saying they elected a president and not a husband, and while Clinton may be a bust in the eyes of those media leaders whose outrage implies that no one in their crowd has ever strayed from their vows, the public just doesn't care.

In the New York Times-CBS poll, 76% said a president's ability to manage the government or his positions on issues are more important to rating how a president is doing his job than "moral values." That's the big story the media have missed.

The poll results represent a stunning rebuke to right-wingers like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the drug-czar-turned-morals-policeman Bill Bennett, who have sought to turn serious debate about public policy into a morality play of their design.

How easy it has been to hector about virtue while ignoring pressing moral issues of tobacco-induced cancer, tax breaks for the rich while 43.4 million Americans lack health insurance and an increase in the minimum wage. Is it un-Christian to demand that anyone who works full-time be paid a living wage? The pope doesn't think so.

It is time to end this farce. While the Republicans diddle with the details of Clinton's personal life, too many issues are left hanging that will have serious consequences for our future, including the proper management of the world financial crisis. Clinton deserves to be criticized; he dropped the issue of health care, and the much-ballyhooed welfare reform he approved is responsible for a good number of the additional 1.7 million Americans now without health coverage because they were pushed out of the Medicaid program.

But Clinton also had major successes. The most recent figures indicate the persistently strong economy has finally brought about a reduction in the number of Americans living in poverty, boosted real wages and protected the economic interests of average Americans, while their counterparts in much of the world are being swamped.

The election coming up should be a forum for how Clinton is doing. But the right wing is attempting to short-circuit the process with this endless Lewinsky nonsense. Unfortunately the media, with its appetite for gossip, have become allies to those who would trivialize elective politics. Hopefully, the polls are right and this assault on democracy will backfire.

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