Interlude—Worst works of the past generation: Journalism’s “worst generation” is hobbling off the stage.
As the various Sam-and-Cokies depart, they are largely being replaced by bright young 20-somethings from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Sometimes, the big new orgs are willing to slum. They’ll hire a youngster from Brown.
For ourselves, we’re constantly struck by the horrible work these “new kids on the lawn” are producing. Given their stardom at the finest schools, we’re often struck by their lack of technical skill.
Beyond that, we’re struck by their lack of “fierce independence”—by the ease with which they assume established roles within their establishment news orgs. More on that impulse below.
In fairness, these young achievers came of age during a terrible time for journalism. Their elders have left them a terrible legacy—and this is the only type of national journalism these rather unimpressive young people have ever known.
How awful was the journalism of the new kids’ youth? As the press corps works to create its latest theme about the rapacious and out-of-touch Clintons, we’ve been thinking about two incidents from the years when these same demonic themes were transferred to Candidate Gore.
How bad was the work of the “worst generation?” Consider two examples involving iconic stars of this group:
Mary McGrory on health care: For many years, the late Mary McGrory was a pillar of the establishment insider press—a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist at the Washington Post.
She was perceived as a liberal. According to the leading authority on her life, McGrory had been “on Richard Nixon's enemies list for writing ‘daily hate Nixon articles.’”
By the late 1990s, McGrory’s hate had perhaps been transferred to the Clintons, even to Bill Clinton's chosen successor. This may explain the peculiar column in which she reviewed the first Democratic debate of Campaign 2000.
Candidates Gore and Bradley debated at Dartmouth on October 27, 1999. According to three major journalists, 300 members of the press corps hissed and jeered everything Gore said as they watched on TV screens in an adjacent press room.
(Over the course of the next month, this astonishing conduct was described by Salon’s Jake Tapper, by the Hotline’s Howard Mortman and by Time magazine’s Eric Pooley.)
During this debate, Gore and Bradley battled at length about their respective health care proposals. In this debate, health care emerged as the major policy difference between the dueling Democrats.
On CNN, Kate O’Beirne, a leading conservative, praised the erudition of the two candidates. “Both were completely conversant on the issues, impressively so,” O’Beirne correctly said.
O’Beirne thought the pair were impressive. But this is the way McGrory began her column in that Sunday’s Post:
MCGRORY (10/31/99): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.As the column continued, so did the insults. And good lord! As McGrory started her next column, she was still talking about Gore’s wardrobe, including that troubling three-button brown suit:
Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station.
MCGRORY (11/4/99): The debate coaches they chose for their encounter at Dartmouth tell you pretty much all you need to know about their campaigns. Vice President Al Gore picked a feminist philosopher, an erstwhile columnist for trendy George magazine named Naomi Wolf. Former senator Bill Bradley chose the Democrats' legendary horse-whisperer, David Burke, onetime staff sage for Teddy Kennedy and later news chief for two networks.In fact, no one ever said that Wolf was responsible for Gore’s “distracting new suit.” Plainly, the suit had greatly distracted McGrory, if no one else.
In a recent George column, Wolf wrote that Gore "should let his defenses down and let his inner oddness out." That might have been what he was doing when he took his painful public search for himself on stage. We're told she was responsible for his distracting new suit, a three-button brown affair that caused much nostalgia for navy-blue serge.
New Hampshire Democrats scored the debate a draw. O’Beirne, the editor of National Review, praised the erudition of the two candidates.
McGrory? She never bothered explaining the facts about the two health proposals. Inside the mainstream establishment press, a different type of disease had taken hold.
This is the kind of journalism which was in vogue when today’s 20-somethings were young. You’d almost think that fiery young people would want to push back against this kind of thing from their elders.
We see few signs of any such fight from today’s “new kids on the lawn.” That said, let’s consider another part of the legacy they have inherited:
Mark Shields and the execution: Eight months later, in June 2000, the mother of all capital punishment cases crossed the desk of Governor/Candidate Bush.
In those eight months, the mainstream press had staged a series of scam-ridden jihads against Candidate Gore. They had taken turns pretending that it was Gore who introduced Willie Horton to the American people. Most recently, they had pounded Gore when he dared oppose Candidate Bush’s high-profile proposal to partially privatize Social Security.
Now, though, a horrible capital punishment case had crossed the governor’s desk. It concerned the pending execution of Gary Graham, a convicted murderer.
Uh-oh! The court case in which Graham had been convicted had been a Texas classic. There was essentially no evidence convicting Graham of the crime, and he had been “defended” by one of the worst of the sleeping, drunken, “public-interest” lawyers for which the Texas system was famous.
But so what? In June 2000, on the day of Graham’s scheduled execution, Governor Bush held a press avail, at which he said he was sure that Graham was guilty as charged. On that basis, Bush had decided not to delay the execution or challenge the (very shaky) verdict.
How did the press corps treat this case—a case which had received world-wide attention? One day after Graham’s execution, Jim Lehrer asked Mark Shields about the case—and Shields praised Bush for the way he had acted.
Shields was a major figure in the insider mainstream press. We still regard this disgraceful exchange as one of the most remarkable moments in modern press corps history:
LEHRER (6/23/00): Now on to other matters. Governor Bush, the capital punishment issue—is that going to dog him from now on?Bush never explained the basis on which he said he knew that Graham was guilty as charged. In a press avail on his plane, it seems that no one asked him to do so.
SHIELDS: Well, Jim, this is a perfect example. It’s an important issue, don't get me wrong. But a perfect example and sort of the quiet time of a campaign, when folks who have a cause—and the cause obviously being the abolition of capital punishment, a growing cause in the country—grab an opportunity to make this into a media event, which was done in Texas, put it on the spotlight, put him on the spotlight. That was intended. But I think the cause is to get this as a full-fledged debate. I think they did.
I thought, as somebody who has mentioned on this broadcast, that George W. Bush— The doubts voters have about him is that he fills the chair, whether he’s big enough, whether he really has the heft to be president. I thought this was probably the finest moment of his campaign as he explained his position. He did it as, outside of a press conference, in a suit and tie, with appropriately serious words and manner. And I thought ironically that it worked for him politically without being overly analytical.
Years later, it became painfully apparent that no serious review had ever accompanied any of these Texas executions. But in that exchange, you see the framework which emerged from the mainstream press in the wake of this very high-profile case.
In an astonishing comment, Shields said that Bush’s statement about the pending execution “was probably the finest moment of his campaign.”
What was so great about Bush’s statement, in which he didn’t explain his confidence in the (very shaky) Graham verdict? Incredibly, Shields said that Bush had worn “a suit and tie” when he made his statement. Beyond that, he had delivered his remarks “with appropriately serious words and manner.”
Years later, it became clear that no serious review of the Graham case had ever been conducted. But so what? During Campaign 2000, Shields was thrilled by the fact that Bush wore a tie that day and didn’t crack any jokes.
This continues to strike us as one of the most remarkable moments in modern press corps history. And make no mistake—Shields was working from a script which prevailed elsewhere in the press.
As Lehrer continued his segment this night, he turned to conservative Paul Gigot. Like Shields, Gigot praised Bush for his “sober demeanor” during his announcement, for the fact that Bush had “sounded like Mark said, like a grown-up.”
Shields and Gigot were hardly alone in this approach to Bush’s decision. On the June 23 Washington Week program, Richard Berke of the New York Times gave voice to the same sorts of judgment.
“I was really struck watching Bush on TV yesterday when he talked about this at a press conference,” Berke said. “He was very sober about talking about this case, and it was quite a contrast to his past comments about death penalty cases where he was accused of being rather cavalier about the death penalty.”
No jokes this time from Bush!
Predictably, this approach to Bush’s performance had surfaced first in Frank Bruni’s reporting. On June 21, the Timesman began to script his colleagues about the upcoming execution.
According to Bruni, Bush’s “challenge” in dealing with the Graham case would be “to demonstrate, through the tone of his voice and the set of his jaw, that he feels the full weight of his responsibility. And it is to show, through his bearing and his choice of words, that he comes by his steadfast position in support of the death penalty after extensive soul-searching and careful thought.”
Bruni took this same approach on Friday morning, June 23. “When the moment of Mr. Graham’s execution finally arrived, Mr. Bush did not merely issue a written statement but spoke to a crowd of reporters in a solemn voice that contradicted his often light-hearted nature,” he wrote. “His facial expression and his words matched his tone.”
That said, was it true? Had Bush actually “come by his decisions after extensive soul-searching?” Did he have a substantial basis for the judgment he expressed?
In subsequent days, Bruni failed to ask Bush how he had reached his judgment about the Graham case, given its extremely lean set of facts. For years, lawyers had slept in Texas courtrooms. Now, reporters were sleeping on Bush’s plane—and pundits made repellent statements on our most august “news” programs.
This is the world in which today’s replacement journalists came of age. In a slightly different world, you’d almost expect this next generation to rebel against this repellent misconduct from their elders, in which towering figures like McGrory and Shields talked about nothing but clothes.
We see few signs of any such fight in the young people who are serving as “the new kids on the lawn.” Briefly, let’s return to yesterday’s example:
In the past week, Catherine Rampell wrote two columns about the attacks on the personal wealth of the Clintons. A new jihad was blowing up, as occurred again and again in the case of Candidate Gore.
Rampell is Princeton class of 07. We’ve seen one reference in which she’s described as Princeton Phi Beta Kappa.
On the surface, Rampell is “first in her class.” But on the merits, her columns on this subject were embarrassing groaners. And sure enough! As her first column ended, this “new kid” came down exactly where her establishment owners are:
RAMPELL (7/15/04): If there is any objection I have to [Chelsea] Clinton's speaking gigs, it's not the size of her paycheck. It's the possibility that her hosts and employers are hiring her in order to buy influence with a possible future president (Clinton Mere), an aspect of Chelsea Clinton's lucrative speaking career that for some reason has not been emphasized in most media reports. This possibility is particularly troubling given the family's resistance during the 2008 primaries to releasing information about donations to the Clinton Foundation, where Clinton's speaking fees reportedly go. When it comes to the Clintons, exposure is easy to come by; transparency, less so.That highlighted passage is striking. According to the Clinton Foundation, Chelsea Clinton hadn’t banked a single dollar from her “lucrative speaking career.” The fees in question have all been donated to the Clinton Foundation.
Nor has she spoken to the types of corporate groups which might seek corrupt deals with a future president. According to the news report from which Rampell was working, Chelsea Clinton has spoken to such groups as The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach. Like her overwrought employers, Rampell was now expressing shadowy fears about the future favors such groups might seek to extract.
These new kids don’t seem inclined to push back against the journalistic culture they’ve inherited.
They came of age during a time of disgraceful, corrupt mainstream journalism. But so what? Everyone in the liberal world has agreed that this era can’t be discussed. Even after four years at Princeton, an unimpressive youngster like Rampell may not even realize what sort of culture she’s buying.
Tomorrow: More work from the new kids on the lawn
We think of Willa Cather: We’ve thought of Willa Cather and My Antonia as we’ve perused Rampell’s work.
In a brilliant passage from her famous autobiographical novel, Cather described her contempt for the native-born Black Hawk boys who saw the vibrant beauty of the community’s immigrant girls, but were too weak and too conventional to act on their own desires.
From late 19th century Nebraska, we offer one short excerpt:
CATHER: The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.That full passage is well worth reading. Cather details her contempt for the Black Hawk boys, whose “respect for respectability” kept them from acting on their attraction to the vibrant immigrant girls.
The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.
Cather almost seems to be describing our own “new kids on the lawn.” In the case of mainstream hires like Rampell, they’ll utter a few tiny unconventional peeps, then rush back to the tortured narratives favored by their employers.
Cather: “So that was what they were like, I thought, these white-handed, high-collared clerks and bookkeepers!”
We recommend the entire chapter from which these clips are drawn.