Washington — There exists at this very moment a carefully held secret in the American media that has thus far escaped notice by even the most vigilant media watch-dog groups. Not even the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy has gotten wind of it. The media’s secret has nothing to do with its members’ political leanings, though since the time of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew — he of unhappy memory — the conservatives have accused the media of left-wingery and more recently the left wing has had the chutzpah to accuse such media tabernacles as the New York Times and the major networks of right-wingery. No, the media’s secret is as hidden from public eye as the National Organization for Women’s grisly initiation rights or the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy’s command post. Okay, okay that was a joke. The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy has no command post (now that it has the White House) and the ladies of NOW only have a secret handshake.
The media’s heretofore unmentioned secret is no joke. At the expense of being ejected from the press corps and barred forever from Washington’s National Press Club, I shall reveal our secret. It is this. Almost all American journalists hate every one of their colleagues; and they do not much like their colleagues’ friends or relatives, either . There are only a few exceptions to this condition. One is Walter Cronkite. I witnessed his benevolent presence not long ago at the White House correspondents’ dinner, and he obviously likes many of his fellow journalists. Of course, he is in retirement and rarely has to spend any time with them. Possibly there are a few other exceptions to journalists’ irritable temperament syndrome, but most journalists really do hate each other.
Do you recall Chris Matthews’ recent outburst against Ted Koppel’s “Nightline”? And just the other day the learned Bryant Gumbel expressed very snooty disesteem for the fabulous Katie Couric. Nor was Matthews’ assault on Koppel all that unique. Koppel’s close call with David Letterman evoked sentiments from his colleagues that, read judiciously, betrayed sheerest joy at his misery. The newspaper columnists are even more contemptuous of their fellow writers and of the English language in general.
If the members of the National Football League harbored as much hatred for their fellow football savages as the journalists harbor for their fellow journalists, no football game would begin without a thorough weapons search. The other day, while on his tour of foreign parts, our debonair President hissed derision at NBC News correspondent David Gregory’s clichéd exaggeration of Europe’s disrelish for him. He said, “So you go to a protest and I drive through the streets of Berlin, seeing hundreds of people lining the road waving….” and mocked Gregory’s use of French in addressing an insolent question to French President Jacques Chirac. In ventilating this impatience George II was merely exhibiting the American politicians’ historic contempt for the press. Not one of his predecessors really liked the press, except perhaps for Warren Harding; who considered the journalists his equals, and with good reason. Yet, most American journalists took delicious satisfaction in Gregory’s humiliation. They enjoy seeing a competitor chastised. They know he deserves it.
The typical American journalist thinks of himself or herself as a genius. They think of their fellows as mediocrities and live in fear that one day the mediocrities will do them in. Hence they wriggle and squirm to one-up each other. They lift each others’ best work. They pretend that no one else in the press corps has anything to say that is intelligent or useful and-especially in their commentary, their columns, and their op-eds-they pop off with no reference to any other living writer. They bore.
Not all journalism suffers from this self-absorption and self-contempt. The Canadian and especially the British press is alive with intramural controversy, one journalist taking issue with the remarks of another, one paper rushing to the support or the condemnation of another. There are plenty of personalities within the British press. When they write commentary they remark on each other. It makes their writing interesting. It makes their controversies vivid and genuine.
This brings to mind another secret of the American media. Their journalists hate controversy. It is the rare American journalist who will say something unexpected or prematurely accurate. Instead the American press travels as a herd, but it is not a happy herd. Its bovine practitioners hate each other.