Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics, by Larry J. Sabato, New York: The Free Press, 306 pages, $22.95
Dismay over the state of American journalism is a tradition as old as the republic. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lamented that "the characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices. Nothing can be more deplorable.…"
Of course, Tocqueville was a politician, and when has a politician not found journalists a "deplorable" bunch? Nevertheless, even the most disdainful media critics of old would be appalled by the degeneration of American journalism over the last 25 years. Reporters and editors in the prestige media today tend to be far more cynical and unforgiving than their counterparts in earlier generations. Churning just below the surface of much of their work is an instinctive antagonism, a bitterness toward the nation's preeminent institutions and personalities.
This alienated, contempt-laced journalism is most visible, and most destructive, in the coverage of national politics—the focus of Larry J. Sabato's Feeding Frenzy. A University of Virginia political scientist whose phone number is in almost every political reporter's Rolodex, Sabato was a conspicuous pundit during both the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill confrontation and the Bill Clinton/Gennifer Flowers imbroglio. Though his book went to press before these scandals, it not only foreshadowed them, it made sense of how the media covered them.
Sabato is no media hater. He writes admiringly of many of the 150 political journalists he interviewed for this book and notes in his preface his "genuine respect and admiration for what their life's work has produced, as well as a greater appreciation for the difficulties they face in undertaking it." Early on in Feeding Frenzy, moreover, he makes clear his disapproval of the speak-no-evil "lapdog journalism" that prevailed in the 1940s, '50s, and early '60s—the decades when reporters, by common consent, never reported that Franklin Roosevelt was severely crippled; that John F. Kennedy was a reckless, compulsive philanderer; or that powerful U.S. senators such as Russell Long of Louisiana or Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin were alcoholics.
But the transformation that has taken place since then, Sabato argues, has shot journalism to the other extreme. Political journalists stopped being lapdogs somewhere between the Supreme Court's 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan and Sen. Ted Kennedy's fatal scandal at Chappaquiddick in 1969. The former eliminated for most journalists the fear of ever having to defend themselves against libel suits; the latter triggered in many of them a belief "that private life and individual character traits had such profound effects on politics and public policy that politicians' personal lives could no longer be ignored."
Sabato makes out a few good years in which the one-time lapdogs metamorphosed into careful "watchdogs." But in the wake of Watergate and the sex scandals of the mid-'70s that drove two powerful congressmen—Wilbur Mills and Wayne Hays—from office, "legitimate 'watchdog' journalism has spun out of control." Today, the watchdogs have become snarling "junkyard dogs."
"Ever since Watergate," Sabato concludes, "most investigative journalists' goal has been not just sensational revelation but the downfall of their target, a trophy head for their wall that is the (im)moral equivalent of Richard Nixon.…The healthy adversarial relationship that naturally exists between the press and politicians has been sharpened to a razor's edge in the process. Many in the press are not merely skeptical of the pols, they are contemptuous of and corrosively cynical about them, and some reverse the usual presumption of innocence into 'guilty unless proven otherwise.'"
Combine that attitude with the indiscriminate blood lust of "piranha in the water," Sabato writes, and political journalism turns into a "feeding frenzy"—a phenomenon he defines as "the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leaps to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably."
And, he might have added, joyfully. Barely a month after the Iran-Contra story first broke in November 1986, Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee vented his glee: "This is the most fun we've had since Watergate." Michael Kinsley, then editor of The New Republic, wrote: "Simple honesty requires any Washington type to admit that this is the kind of episode we all live for. The adrenaline is flowing like Perrier.…C'mon, everybody, admit it. We're high.…The fall of Reagan is a laughing matter.…Repeat after me. Ha. Ha. Ha."
Not only are feeding-frenzy stories cropping up more often, they are focusing ever more relentlessly on personal/lifestyle/"character" issues. Feeding Frenzy dissects a host of examples: Gary Hart's mistress(es), Douglas Ginsburg's pot smoking, John Tower's drinking, Barney Frank's male prostitute, Michael Dukakis's "depression."
And Dan Quayle's—well, Dan Quayle's everything. Sabato is blistering in his condemnation of the media for what they did to Quayle in the summer of 1988—it was, he says, "the megafrenzy of post-Watergate campaigns," a hysterical, obsessive furor that lurched from topic to topic, oblivious to the line between fact and rumor, unable to distinguish legitimate news gathering from frantic scandal mongering. Everything became fuel for the media bonfire, whether it was true, false, or irrelevant: Quayle's wealth, his National Guard service, his connection to lobbyist/adulteress Paula Parkinson, his college grades, his alleged marijuana use and college plagiarism—even his name.
Sabato is harsh, though never shrill, in his judgments of journalists and media outlets who let fair reporting give way to indefensible "attack journalism." But just where that boundary is he often seems unsure himself. "No specific guidelines exist," he notes, "to enable journalists to navigate successfully…when a frenzy storm hits." He offers his own "set of guidelines to govern private-life frenzies" but admits that they "are not airtight, will not end the debate about privacy, and do not pretend to be a rote substitution for considered editorial judgment when a new frenzy arises."
Equally inconclusive is Sabato's effort to identify the "rules" of how scandal stories develop. Describing how a feeding frenzy swirling about one candidate will be affected by other candidates' actions, for example, Sabato first predicts that "irresistibly, rival candidates are drawn to the fray," then contradicts himself 24 lines later: "Not every rival camp launches an assault on a tempting target, however." Sabato also tries to have it both ways with the impact of public opinion: "At this juncture, the electorate…may either judge the candidate's offense as serious…or deem it insufficiently weighty to merit severe punishment." A two-page flow chart in Feeding Frenzy is practically a self-parody: A box labeled "Stage 4" of "Voter Reactions" lists the responses to a journalistic frenzy: "Voters accept problems as serious; candidate damaged OR Antipress backlash OR Voters reject frenzy problem; campaign moves on to other issues OR Combination."
It is impossible to tell from this book or its case studies whether Sabato's politics are conservative or liberal. He blasts the failure of reporters to pursue "strong circumstantial evidence" of Jesse Jackson's marital infidelity but also describes as "most despicable" the rumor-fueled story that Michael Dukakis had been treated by a psychiatrist.
But while Feeding Frenzy's politics are evenhanded, its emphasis is often misplaced. The Dukakis allegations—which were launched into the media mainstream in 1988 by The Boston Globe but never descended to anywhere near the level of a frenzy—consume as much space in the book as the section on the destruction of John Tower—a classic media frenzy in every sense. As much attention is devoted to a slander that became big news (that House Speaker Tom Foley is gay) as to one that never even appeared in print (that Quayle had an affair with a South Carolina woman). Sabato writes at length about how Gerald Ford's "free Poland" remark during a presidential debate was unfairly distorted by the press covering the 1976 campaign; yet he offers almost nothing on the financial irregularities of vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro (and her husband, John Zaccaro), which became a dominating issue in the 1984 campaign.
What are the sources of feeding-frenzy journalism? Here Sabato's insights are keen. The explosion in the number of journalists and the intensity of the 24-hour news cycle epitomized by CNN, he writes, create "a voracious news appetite demanding to be fed constantly, increasing the pressure to include marginal bits of information and gossip.…In such situations any development is almost inevitably magnified and over-scrutinized." Competitive pressures driven by the bottom line "propel each newspaper and network to try to make a contribution" to a burgeoning story and convert "balanced reporting into sensationalized headlines."
There are other factors too, and Feeding Frenzy is especially valuable for its analysis of their impact—from the "groupthink" mentality of pack journalism to the ubiquity of polling and the resulting "horserace" coverage of campaigns, from the guilt of older reporters who missed the early signs of the Watergate scandal to the ambition of younger colleagues, attracted by the glamour (and salaries) of modern celebrity journalism.
Sabato prescribes some common-sense remedies for feeding frenzies: Newspapers should hire more ombudsmen; media outlets should refuse to report a story from another outlet until their own reporters have independently verified it; prominent journalists should serve as ethicists and "call a halt to the excesses seen in many frenzies." But he clearly doesn't envision a media reformation any time soon: "When all is said and done on this subject," he concludes, "it is a good bet that more will be said than done."
Perhaps. But here's a better wager: If American journalists don't learn, quickly, to police themselves more effectively, they are going to face a crippling repercussion from the public. An antipress backlash is building. Consider a recent "Doonesbury" comic strip: In one panel, Pat Buchanan's enemies plot an attack on him based on "the only thing worse than having been a long-time member of the Ku Klux Klan." In the next panel, the scandalous behavior is raised at a press conference: "Mr. Buchanan, how do you explain your 17 years in the media?"
The phenomenon is not confined to the funny pages. There is a booming trade in media watchdogging, and most of its practitioners don't confine themselves to Sabato's calm and reasonable tone. Readers and viewers, as a mounting stack of public-opinion surveys document, increasingly see the media as untrustworthy, unethical, and too influential. Less and less is an uninhibited, nosy, aggressive free press seen as one of the glories—let alone one of the guarantors—of liberal democracy.
Perhaps this spreading antipathy toward journalists will manifest itself merely in a continued falloff in newspaper readers and TV-news watchers. But it is not that hard to envision a more dire scenario, with public anger leading to an erosion of press freedoms, demands for censorship, or legal bars on what journalists may write or say.
"In America," Oscar Wilde once remarked, "the president reigns for four years, but journalism reigns forever and ever." Wilde's cracks were frequently right on the money. But if American reporters and editors don't call a halt to the feeding-frenzy journalism that is poisoning the nation's politics, this is one Wilde remark that may turn out to be dead wrong.
Jeff Jacoby is chief editorial writer for the Boston Herald.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Blood in the Water".