Good press, bad press


Washington -- IT WAS PROBABLY inevitable that the "Connie Chung question" would come up, even at last Thursday's gala inaugural salute to the new Senate leadership at the gorgeous Corcoran Gallery.

The discussion among journalists started when Cable News Networks' press show moderator Bernard Kalb asked several of us whether we would have done what Connie Chung did. Would we have told Newt Gingrich's mother that she should "whisper it to me, just between you and me," as to what "Newtie" really thought of Hillary Clinton?

Columnist David Broder and I had no hesitation. Almost in unison, we virtually shouted, "Absolutely not!" Then I added, sardonically, "I didn't think we were in this business to con little old ladies."

Then this discussion, signifying the moral and ideological dividing line in the press today, became curious indeed.

Feminist writer Betty Friedan, standing by at the event sponsored by the Freedom Forum, was miffed, but her concern was not so much the moral issue as the fact that I had called Kathleen Gingrich a "little old lady." Which was, of course, as any good political-corrector would know, a sexist remark.

At this point in the evening, as flashing lights created stars on the ceiling, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, 71, began a witty speech, also incorporating age. Playing on the ripe age of Sen. Strom Thurmond, now 92, and still an indomitable congressional actor, Bob Dole said, straight-faced: "I wouldn't be thinking about running for president if I didn't see Strom every day." Pause. "He jogs by my office every day." Pause. "When I hear about health care, I say, 'I want the Thurmond plan.' " Pause. "When Strom eats a banana, I eat a banana."

Then he concluded, "Since I've become the voice of reason, I've got to be very careful what I say."

In short, it was a great evening, but at home I thought about the various challenges and changes that the evening portended.

First, the Connie Chung question. It seemed obvious enough to me that Connie, for all her talents, had lied -- and lied right on camera, where everybody could see her. The fact that Mrs. Gingrich then "whispered" that "Newtie" thought Hillary was a "bitch" -- well, aren't we smart to reveal that. (CBS News President Eric Ober was quoted afterward as saying that Mrs. Gingrich had "volunteered an unsolicited view." Give me a break.)

In fact, the Connie Chung question illuminates two major groups and two major tendencies in the press.

One is, mistakenly I believe, called the liberal press. But it is not truly liberal in any classic political sense of the word. Instead, the wing exemplified by the Connie Chung case is perpetually juvenile and has no real political form except an amorphous anti-authority bent; it embraces adversarialness for its own sake; and it is characterized by the destructive playfulness that characterizes cultures in decline. This group accepts every defining-down; heralds every pathology; lives in the here-and-now. Honesty comes second; kicks come first.

The other school, to which many of us still belong, is the more traditional school of the press, believing that traditional personal moral qualities are also professional qualities. We do not see devils (the Republicans) and angels (the Democrats). We see imperfect human beings whom it is our job to report on and analyze, not bring down. We see journalism as a privilege, not as a craft we can use to manipulate people for our own ambition's ends.

The Connie Chung brouhaha was just more of the infantile approach of much of the (particularly) broadcast media. It exposed a narcissistic and self-absorbed part of the press.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's speech to the 104th Congress last Wednesday exemplified the other way. Even though he himself has not always been mature, his words that day were thoughtful, more eloquent than what we have heard in Congress for a long time.

And so, today, the high ground has unquestionably been seized by the Republicans. Is it not time to demand that the (misnamed) liberals in the press start analyzing them seriously instead of whispering in sound bites in order to get silly scoops?

And, furthermore, I still don't think we in the press were put here to con little old ladies.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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