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Columnists Remarkable Providences

How low can they go?

How low can they go?

Call the chiropractors: It's journalistic limbo time again

Read 'em and weep? every december the media Research Center sends a Christmas present in the form of a lengthy ballot to a few journalists and professors, charged with selecting from the hundreds of examples of liberal media bias those that particularly make us cry, laugh, or become slack-jawed.

Since it's best both to receive and to give, here are a few of my favorites, starting with Time Senior Writer Richard Lacayo's October 27 sow's-ear-to-silk-purse analysis of the Clinton fundraising tapes: "Put aside for a moment the questions about what was illegal and what was just unseemly, and the overall effect is oddly comforting. If nothing else, the tapes prove that the most powerful nation on earth can operate on autopilot while the president chases campaign money."

Vice President Gore also avoided treatment as a Nixon-like rascal to be run out of town. Instead, U.S. News senior writer Timothy Noah fitted him out as a major thinker: "Gore's commitment to the world of big ideas is no pose. Unlike John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, who became darlings of the highbrow set without fully earning the honor, Gore is truly engaged in the life of the mind." Time columnist Margaret Carlson asked on Sept. 6, "Who would ever have thought that you doubt the probity of Vice President Al Gore... ?" Then she minimized his responsibility and said, "the system is corrupting people."

The villains, on the other hand, showed moral culpability. Newt Gingrich is "like Lenin," according to ABC's Sam Donaldson. "They both made a revolution by shooting people-Newt shot Democrats, Lenin shot everybody-and then they didn't have enough sense to stop shooting once they won." Republican congressional leaders, according to Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times, "would rather kill people than raise taxes."

Journalists also reminisced about oldies but goodies like "prescient" George McGovern, praised by USA Today founder Al Neuharth in his June 20 column: "What if Watergate had elected McGovern? ... The Cold War would have ended in the '70s rather than in the '90s." (Mr. Neuharth is right, but the United States would have lost the war.) On October 1 Los Angeles Times reporter Elizabeth Mehren wrote about Anita Hill: "So, she was asked, does she sometimes feel like the Joan of Arc of sexual harassment? Sure, Hill replied, and here came the mirth the Senate never saw: 'I refuse to die, though.'" (Play the laugh track, quickly.)

Some media folks even showed nostalgia for communism. CBS This Morning co-host Jane Robelot reported on March 24, concerning barely hanging-on Cuba, "Under Cuba's communist form of government, a Cuban family's basic necessities, housing, education, health care, and transportation, are provided by the state for free or at very little cost." On October 2, Robin Wright of the Los Angeles Times looked at many countries and mourned "the transition from socialist governments, which sought to develop female as well as male proletariats. As those governments died, so went the socialist ideals of equality and the subsidies for social programs that aided women. In many countries, traditional patriarchal cultures resurfaced."

Headline comparisons are instructive. The Los Angeles Times on July 17 reported, "CIA Agent Says He Gave Huang Classified Data," and the New York Times that same day ran its headline, "CIA Officer Says His Briefings for Huang Were Simply Routine." We have a problem if classified information is passed on during routine briefings. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter may have a deeper problem, judging by his recollection of models of missiles displayed at "one military meeting during the 1980s.... The American power phalluses were long and white; the Soviets', shorter and black. We were still safely ahead, but only by the margin of our machismo."

The deepest problem of all, however, may be that of Washington journalism generally: How the mighty have fallen! Think of the Washington Post 25 years ago as it exposed the Watergate cover-up with some terrific investigative reporting and aggressive questioning. Then look at this question from Washington Post reporters to President Clinton, in an interview published January 19: "There's been a lot of talk lately, as you know, printed and so forth, about the Lincoln Bedroom and the people who stay here. And obviously a lot of them are your friends. And I don't think anybody would begrudge somebody having guests in their own house. Some of them, though, it seems apparently you didn't know quite as well. And we're wondering if you might feel let down a little bit by your staff or by the DNC in their zeal to raise funds?" That tame and lame line of questioning is a worthy contender for Embarrassment of the Year.