The Culture of Mistrust
From The New Criterion.
November 30, 2003.
It was a fantastic laboratory test, done as if to order. On Monday, Howard Kurtz wrote in the Washington Post, in an article headed: "For ‘Gotcha’ Reporting the Getting’s Not So Good," that scandal-mania in the media was not being successfully transmitted to media consumers and especially to voters, who are told with some regularity that candidates for public office are concealing discreditable information about themselves. "What if bad press no longer matters?" he wondered. His examples included General Wesley Clark, who made what some in the press saw as a disastrous first step in his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination when he said, first, that he would have voted for the war in Iraq and then, less than 24 hours later, that he "never" would have done so. Likewise, Governor Howard Dean, another candidate for the Democratic nomination, was slammed by a third candidate, Dick Gephardt, for having criticized one of the Democratic party’s sacred cows, Medicare, back in 1995 — charges to which the press gave considerable attention, though no one else seemed to do so. Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger looked like winning the recall election to replace Governor Gray Davis of California, Kurtz said, "despite an avalanche of negative headlines about his inaccessibility, his lack of specifics and his wild-and-crazy bodybuilding days."
That was on Monday. On Thursday we found out what a real avalanche looked like. Or, perhaps, as the conservative Media Research Center called it, changing the metaphor, "a perfect storm of anti-conservative news items." Not only did the Los Angeles Times publish a report that day quoting six women (four of them anonymous) who were accusing Schwarzenegger of inappropriate touching that amounted, in the view of some, to sexual assault, but Rush Limbaugh had had to resign from a television sports show for what was taken to be a racial remark at the same time as it was revealed (in the National Enquirer) that he was under investigation for illegally buying prescription pain-killers. Also in the news was the fact that David Kay’s official investigation had been unable to find Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, while speculative stories continued about the leak to the press of a CIA agent’s identity by members of the Bush administration. About Schwarzenegger and Limbaugh, Kurtz wrote: "You have to wonder whether their enemies are out to get them," and he called the Schwarzenegger story "the L.A. Times’s October surprise." Howard will have his little joke, but, really, why would you even wonder? Of course their enemies are out to get them. That’s why they’re enemies. The question is, or ought to be, what is and is not legitimate in the attempt to get them?
Just a little sidebar appealing to my sense of Schadenfreude about the New York Times was the fact that the latter paper published, on the same day as the story about Arnold as serial groper appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a piece by Jim Rutenberg noting that
Close observers say they have been surprised by how relatively tame the advertisements have been for such a heated campaign.
"This is not exactly the politics of personal destruction," Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said. "The stuff that we’re seeing is factually based as opposed to, ‘The other guy’s scum’."
A good thing he added that "with plenty of time left, the climate can change quickly"! Or maybe he thought that rushing largely unsupported allegations by anonymous sources purporting to prove that "the other guy’s scum" five days before the election was OK because it was "factually based"? Naturally, all hints that the Democrats, or perhaps Governor Gray Davis’s campaign itself, had put the paper up to it were strenuously denied. "The Times," wrote The Times, did not learn of any of the six women from Schwarzenegger’s rivals in the recall race. And none of the women approached the newspaper on her own. Reporters contacted them in the course of a seven-week examination of Schwarzenegger’s behavior toward women on and off the movie set." Sure. And I’ll bet all those reporters were Schwarzenegger backers too, before they learned to their considerable shock and amazement what their man had done.
But even if they were, how could The Times not have been seen as politically motivated in seeking out such a story at such a time? The high-minded editorial in The Wall Street Journal claimed that "If the women's allegations are true, it doesn’t matter if the timing of the revelations are [sic] politically motivated." Yes it does! That’s precisely what does matter, at least from the point of view of the political culture. Devastating and humiliating as the experience doubtless was for the women who were touched "inappropriately" by the Austrian lunkhead, their bringing it to the public attention five days before an election amounted to political blackmail which, if it had succeeded, would have opened the way to ever more outrageous and untested allegations in advance of every election.
But the pretense of shock and horror at Mr Schwarzenegger’s "insensitive" behavior was nowhere to be penetrated, apparently, at least not by anyone with the temerity to ask cui bono? There were few indeed even with the hardihood to snicker behind their hands at the Times’s reporting that one of its sources claimed Schwarzenegger "often used vulgar words for vagina and clitoris during her contact with him" on a film-set. "He was crude, boisterous and disparaging around women," this woman said. "In the makeup room, his language was so bad I turned around and walked out." Under other circumstances it might have been heartening news that the Los Angeles Times was announcing a return of Victorian standards. How dare you use such language, sir? There are ladies present. But those of us who might otherwise have been encouraged by such a development could not but reflect that there might have been another and less creditable reason why the paper purported suddenly to have found that foul language in Hollywood was front page news.
Interestingly, Schwarzenegger showed himself to be enough of a politician to understand that Clintonian denial would, under the circumstances, be less politically effective than an apology. The apology itself naturally became a part of the sordid political game, "a calculated move," as the New York Times disingenuously put it, "by Mr. Schwarzenegger's campaign to prevent the latest accusations from derailing the campaign on the last weekend of the recall race." Not, I guess, that the accusations themselves could have been a calculated move to bring about just such a derailing in the first place!
"Let me tell you something," the actor said. "A lot of [what] you see in the stories is not true, but at the same time, I have to tell you that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. That is true.
"So I want to say to you, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful, but now I recognize that I have offended people.
"And to those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I’m trying to do."
I myself would have thought a lot better of Arnold if he had stuck with his first comment, which was to call the allegations a desperation tactic on the part of Gray Davis and "trash politics" or "puke politics" — which they were.
There were plenty of other things I didn’t like about the muscleman, and I hated the whole idea of the recall. It was itself a manifestation of the same breakdown of trust in public life as the trash politics that so prominently came into it. After the vote, Schwarzenegger said that he saw his election as a conferring of a public trust and that "We need to bring back the trust in the government itself." But how could he do that when he came to office as a result of the public’s saying to his predecessor, in effect, that the trust reposed in him wasn’t really trust at all but only a willingness to let him serve at the public’s pleasure? Moreover, I think Schwarzenegger is, as his mother might have put it, a dunderhead. Arnold, du bist ein dummkopf! I think so not just because of his failure to grasp the shame and humiliation he was inflicting on those poor women, terrible though that no doubt was, but for making as his signature issue the need to raise education spending, which is the most foolish of political crowd-pleasers. Any hope of improving schools, in California or the nation, must depend on cutting education spending. For years we have been increasing it in response to every new report of declining standards in schools, mindlessly continuing to reward failure and expecting that the system will therefore turn off its own money-valve by producing success.
But in spite of all these negatives, I would have risen, had I been living in California, from a bed of pain, or struggled through swamps and over mountains, just in order to vote for the big dummy, just on the off-chance that it might contribute to some small discouragement of the media’s insatiable appetite for scandal and their willingness to found our public life on ever more extravagant charges of personal and political corruption lodged by each side against the other — as if the only thing that could interest us about our public figures is what they might be hiding.
What does this say not about them but about us? Not that this was at all likely to occur to the media. Scandal is too profitable for them. But just as the Republicans’ impeaching Bill Clinton, even if he had deserved it, was spectacularly misjudged, since they were politically interested parties, so the media’s natural propensity for scandal-hunting should be put on hold in advance of an election lest they reveal themselves as politically engagé. As a long-time advocate of open biases openly proclaimed, I would welcome such a development myself, but for the fact that I find it utterly unimaginable apart from the disgustingly sanctimonious pretense that all is done in the public interest. If pressed — as of course it never is — the newspaper would have denied that it had tossed away any remaining claim to be politically unengaged on the grounds of public duty, perhaps, because . . . because Schwarzenegger might inappropriately touch the employees in the governor’s office? Yeah, that must be what was uppermost in the editorial minds of the Los Angeles Times, the well-being of the secretaries of Sacramento.
Not that women can only be secretaries. Oh, dear God! You don’t think I believe that do you? For "Gotcha" journalism is not limited to attempts at electoral manipulation, as poor Mr Limbaugh found out when he said that the race-consciousness of the media might, just occasionally, affect the way things are reported. The media’s taking this as a "racist" remark suggests that we are conducting our public discourse in keeping with the principles of the Inquisition or the show-trials in Stalinist Russia where the lightest word can suddenly turn a suspect person into an Enemy of the People. Any of us may make a mistake or a misstatement, or attempt to make a joke or a complex argument in over-simple terms and suddenly find ourselves publicly identified with discredited and discreditable confederates up to and including Hitler. This also happened to Schwarzenegger, as it happens. Perhaps feeling outdone in sanctimoniousness by its West-coast counterpart, the sanctimony-champion New York Times made a bid to recover its crown by digging up — out of a book proposal, forsooth — the most hilarious of the allegations against the California muscle-man: that he had allegedly expressed an admiration for the late German dictator who, like Schwarzenegger himself, was born in Austria and went on to achieve political success in a foreign country.
Here is how the paper’s reporters, Adam Nagourney and David D. Kirkpatrick, put it the day after the story of the six women broke in California:
The book proposal by the producer, George Butler, included what were presented as verbatim excerpts from interviews with Mr. Schwarzenegger in the filming of the documentary Pumping Iron. In a part of the interview not used in the film, Mr. Schwarzenegger was asked to name his heroes — "who do you admire most."
"It depends for what," Mr. Schwarzenegger said, according to the transcript in the book proposal. "I admired Hitler, for instance, because he came from being a little man with almost no formal education up to power. And I admire him for being such a good public speaker."
In addition to the transcript, Mr. Butler wrote in his book proposal that in the 1970's, he considered Mr. Schwarzenegger a "flagrant, outspoken admirer of Hitler." In the proposal, Mr. Butler also said he had seen Mr. Schwarzenegger playing "Nazi marching songs from long-playing records in his collection at home" and said that the actor "frequently clicked his heels and pretended to be an S.S. officer.". . .
. . .In his book proposal, Mr. Butler [quoted] Mr. Schwarzenegger saying, "I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for what he did with it."
But early this morning, Mr. Butler called back, saying he had driven back to his New Hampshire home and found another transcript of the interview, with different wording: "I admire him for being such a good public speaker and for his way of getting to the people and so on. But I didn’t admire him for what he did with it. It’s very hard to say who I admire, who are my heroes."
I love that formulation: "with different wording." But what I like best about the passage is that, apparently, it occurred to no one at the Times to say, after Butler’s callback, "Rats! There goes our story." Not at all! Even Schwarzenegger’s admiring Hitler’s powers of oratory was big news to the New York Times. It was almost like something out of Mel Brooks, who has his comic Nazi and the author of the musical Springtime for Hitler, Franz Liebkind (played by Kenneth Mars in the film version of The Producers) say: "Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill; Hitler was a better dresser than Churchill; Hitler was a better painter than Churchill: he could paint a whole apartment in one afternoon, two coats." It seems obvious to me that in clicking his heels or playing a Nazi marching song, Schwarzenegger was putting on his Franz Liebkind act for a gullible producer who he knew would feel a delicious sense of shock at it.
The Times article also helped ensure that the garbled quotation, expressing a more general admiration for Hitler, went on being quoted for days by the likes of Al Franken, self-appointed hammer of the right in such books as Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. It didn’t seem to bother him that, in his eagerness to find any stick with which to beat Schwarzenegger, he himself was telling lies. Such people were prepared to abandon not only a sense of humor, or of proportion, but their very judgment about what a man might or might not really have said — never mind what he might or might not really have believed. In doing so, they showed themselves to be either absurdly gullible, or else utterly cynical: the former if they really believed Schwarzenegger said what they said he said and the latter if they didn’t but were willing to attribute it to him anyway.
But that is the way the media game is played in a world where outrage is a commodity and is traded on the media markets of left and right for potential gain. And not just political gain either. In the popular culture, "outrageous" is a term of high approval, and those who seek to serve the market for outrageousness package the factitious outrage of rap musicians or performance artists or film or sports stars for the appropriate audiences. Schwarzenegger himself acknowledged that he had taken advantage of the market for outrage to promote himself and body-building in the now-famous interview with Oui magazine in 1977 in which he suggested that he had taken part in orgies. When asked about this during the campaign he at first said "Obviously, I’ve made statements that were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous and all those things, because that’s the way I always was," which wasn’t quite an admission of the behavior, and later (on "Hardball with Chris Matthews") suggested that he had made it up. "There were only a few hundred gymnasiums in America at the time when I came over here," he said. "Now there are hundreds of thousands. So we were very successful with our campaign to promote bodybuilding, to promote fitness, the health industry and all of that."
After all, even a dummkopf can figure out that readers of Oui magazine are more likely to want to hear about orgies than no-orgies — just as readers of the Los Angeles Times are more likely to want to hear about sex-scandals than no-sex scandals — or no scandals at all. But no one in the media ever acknowledges that the amount of scandal in the world bears any relation to the media’s own financial interest in producing enough of it to meet the public demand. And that may be why those who report on the outrage of others — whether the six gropees in Hollywood or "women’s groups" or Arianna Huffington — always do so with a straight face. "I believe what this story is going to do is really bring to question this big issue of trust and credibility. If his word and image are consistently proven to be false, he doesn't have a leg to stand on," said Mrs Huffington, whose own legs had so lately been cut from under her in the race against him. Imagine how newsworthy it is that she is shocked! Likewise, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), said that Rush Limbaugh’s remarks were "outrageous and offensive." Really? Offensive? does the very idea of racial hypocrisy in the white-dominated media give him, perhaps, the vapors? I would say that I suspect nobody is really offended by anything anymore — not unless he stands to gain from publicizing the offense — but for the fact that it would be another surrender to the culture of mistrust.