This article is taken from the April 1997 issue of The American Spectator.
When the White House “food chain,” showing the progress of anti-Clinton “conspiracy” stories through the media, appeared a few weeks back, I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d written for almost all the publications cited though, in truth, most of my professional life seems to be passed among the algae at the lower end of the chain. But I felt an especial surge of pride when the administration fingered “British tabloids.” As it happens, the most exhaustive accounts of the Clinton scandals have appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, which is not a tabloid, but a highly respectable broadsheet read by retired Colonels from the Indian Army living in the Home Counties. Few of the American commentators roused themselves to point out to the White House this most basic and easily checkable inaccuracy, no doubt for the same reason so few of them have attempted to verify Paula Jones’ story: it would involve making a phone call and they want to stop off at the hairdresser’s on the way over to “Nightline.” But, in fact, almost all the British papers have covered the president’s behavioral quirks more extensively than, say, the New York Times: the left-wing Guardian and the other broadsheets have done so because, at the very least, they form a pattern —continuing to his recent excessive caffeine intake—of willful con- tempt for the proprieties of office; and the tabloids have done so, because anyone who isn’t curious when the most powerful man in the world is rumored to be both a regular coke-snorter and a serial pants-dropper is not, in any recognizable sense of the word, a journalist.
To the White House, this is all the work of the “right-wing press.” It’s true that most of the British press is conservative, but, when it comes to scandal, they’re admirably non-partisan. It is a sad fact that, at the Palace of Westminster, the liberals and socialists are the eunuchs: if they’ve ever had any sex, it was very long ago and mostly with their spouses. Conservative MPs, on the other hand, are at it with anything that moves—and, occasionally, with things that don’t: the late member Stephen Milligan was found dead wearing a pair of ladies’ stockings, with a garbage bag on his head and half a satsumsa and a tab of amyl nitrate in his mouth. (I mention this not to disapprove but rather to commend; in contrast to, say, the boorish fellatio junkie Chuck Robb, at least Milligan tried to keep the apparently inexhaustible sex-drive which so many politicians are prone to—and, indeed, prone for—self-contained.) Faced with damaging and demoralizing the government they support or not running the headline “Tranny Tory In Kinky Fishnet Death Riddle,” it’s no contest.
When a married Tory was revealed to have shared a bed with another man in a French hotel, there was a stampede to the Continent, with each tabloid determined to be first to get to the hotel, book the room, and photograph the bed in question from every conceivable angle and in increasing states of dishevelment. The MP in question was a man who had supported the prime minister’s return to family values — the “Back to Basics” campaign — but, when he offered as explanation for the shared bed the fact that French hotel rates are too high, the headline “Back to Back to Basics” was too much to resist. As they’ve detonated the careers of this toe-sucking cabinet bigwig and that three-in-a-bed-sex-romp minister of state, the tabloids’ nose for a good story has always won out over their political affiliations: they set a standard of impartiality that puts the New York Times and the American network news shows to shame.
But when the White House uses the term “British tabloids,” it knows that, to most Americans, it’s code for sleazebags, pond-scum, non-house-trained Neanderthals—the very opposite end of the spectrum from the ponderous gravitas of Ted Koppel. “British tabloids” means off the map of the civilized world; you won’t find them at Kay Graham’s dinner parties. It’s true they’re a little robust for some tastes: when someone or other suggested that those with HIV ought to have an identifying tag on their wrists, Gary Bushell of the Sun— Britain’s biggest-selling daily newspaper— said it would be easier just to tattoo the base of their spines “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
Around that time, I was writing for the Independent, a so-called “quality” broadsheet. One night, they sent me to a restaurant, at which I was to be photographed being serenaded by a singing chef. Unfortunately, no staff photographer was available, so they got hold of a free-lance. He turned up with a collapsible ladder, which had somehow de-collapsed and which struck a couple of diners and a half-dozen bread rolls as he made his way to my table. When I asked why he’d brought a ladder to a restaurant, he replied that he did most of his work for the tabloids and, as a lot of Royals ate in fancy restaurants like this, he always kept his ladder with him in case one turned up, because, especially if it was Di, it always helped to get a couple of feet off the ground so you could get a good shot of her knockers. As he explained this and other secrets of the trade in a loud voice, the more squeamish of the adjoining diners discreetly asked the maitre d’ if they could be moved to another table.
In those days, the Independent carried no Royal stories except for the formal Court Circular issued by Buckingham Palace on the grounds that anything else was just speculation. But the thing is: the tabloids were right. For ten years, they told us that the Prince and Princess of Wales’ marriage was a sham, that the Prince was cheatin’ and the Princess wasn’t eatin’, and we at the high-toned end dismissed it as regrettable, intrusive, speculative fantasy. We were wrong, the sleazebags were right. They were right about Michael Jackson, too: their correspondents in California were on to that story—the boy, his father, their lawyer, sundry other alleged ex-catamites — before any of the American media. These stories are of varying degrees of importance: one involves a man who perpetrated a massive fraud on his future subjects which calls in question his ability to sustain the monarchy in his mother’s various realms; the other involves a guy who’s never been anywhere near the levers of state power, except for when he sang at the ’92Inaugural. But both stories fulfill the definition of news: they’re matters of legitimate interest that the parties involved don’t want you to know about.
In both Britain and America, politics and celebrity are gradually, remorselessly converging. But there’s one huge difference: the British media treats the prime minister the same way the Sun treats Jacko or Boy George or Elton John — if there’s a rent boy or a mistress or even an unpaid parking ticket, they want to get hold of it; by contrast, the U.S. media treats the president the same way, say, Diane Sawyer would treat Barbra Streisand — a sympathetic, deferential interview to which the parameters are agreed well in advance.
Most Americans now get their news from entertainers—and entertainers, above all, need to be loved. It’s like Al Jolson at the Winter Garden getting down on one knee and telling his beloved audience that he won’t stop until he’s sung them everything they want to hear. Except that, in their own peculiar twist on this tradition, the new news entertainers don’t need to be loved by the audience, but rather by their subjects. Here’s Harry Smith, down on his knees Jolson-style: “A lot has been written about you. Much of it has a sense that Mario Cuomo is a man full of promise, the promise that you may have been able to deliver to people, your eloquence, your intelligence. Will you continue to use this passion, will you continue to use this eloquence?” New Yorkers had just declared that they’d had enough of Cuomo’s promise and eloquence and intelligence and passion. But why should a few million anonymous ballots cast by pip-squeaks small-minded enough to be bothered about taxes, education, and crime distract Harry from his high-flown generalities?
Do you know what the most frightening line in American journalism is? “More Americans Get Their News From ABC News Than From Any Other Source.” I just listened to an ABC News hourly bulletin on the car radio: it told me that Tonya Harding makes her professional skating debut in Vegas tonight. That’s a perfect example of not only the staleness of America’s mainstream news organizations but also their phoniness: it’s not “Tonya Harding made her debut last night in Vegas and drove her fans to such a frenzy that they rushed the stage causing the deaths of 42 people”; it’s not “Tonya Harding’s debut in Vegas was canceled when Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme attacked her with a crowbar”; it’s not news at all, it’s a press release that a duty editor entered in the diary. That’s what almost all network news is: If they could record it a month in advance, they would. Instead it just feels that way, with the same flabby, generalized health, lifestyle, and human interest features —ABC’s “Solutions,” CBS’s “Travels With Harry”—that no genuine news program would touch. These people, underneath their civility-touting facades, have corrupted journalistic ethics far more than the British tabloids. While I’m at it, they’re worse than America’s supermarket tabloids, too.
The National Enquirer has a better record on the O.J. trial than ABC, CBS, NBC, Time, Newsweek, et al. The Enquirer stuck doggedly to pertinent matters like the missing knife and the bloody glove — hard specifics that require journalists getting their shoes a little muddy. That’s too much like hard work for the uptown boys; it’s much easier to convert the story to symbolism, as the Washington Post and other papers did almost from the word go, solemnly agonizing over how the fall of a black role model was a tragedy for the dream of a color-blind America. No, it wasn’t. It was a tragedy for one specific woman and one specific and unfortunate friend who happened to be with her at the wrong time. Months before anyone had ever heard of Johnnie Cochran, the respectable press had played the race card: even Cochran’s comparison with Hitler doesn’t seem so ridiculous, when you consider that one early New York Times piece on O.J. managed to drag in Norman Mailer, Jean Genet, Dostoevsky, Milton, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. As Newsweek put it, “Was this another case of power/money/fame’s wretched song of impenetrability?”
The entire mainstream media is singing a wretched song of impenetrability. There is a serious scandal going on in the American press and it’s nothing to do with British tabloids. Laziness, bias, and, above all, the increasing remoteness of the media from anything approaching real American life have corrupted the entire political discourse. Example: whatever happened to that Clinton 20-point lead that was so “unassailable”? In the end, he scraped by with a minority of a minority—which suggests Dole could have won in a less weighted news culture. The only polling organization to come close to getting the result right was, again, British: Reuter’s. What does the wholesale inaccuracy of American polling mean? That the entire news gathering operation is now so infected that it’s second nature? In the Soviet Union, the state spent a fortune—jamming signals, smashing printing presses, seizing books—trying to keep its populace in total ignorance of everything. America, to a degree the KGB would marvel at, has almost achieved that goal, through the sheer dozy complacency of its respectable press. Give me the Fleet Street velociraptors any day.
In April 1997, Mark Steyn was theater critic of the New Criterion, movie critic of the Spectator of London, and The American Spectator’s Culture Vultures columnist.