Fame Is What Gets You in the Door


New York. -- In the seat pocket in front of you, USAir supplies its passengers with a magazine of the same name as the airline.

USAir magazine is published by a division of the New York Times, and in that newspaper last week there was an advertisement promoting a feature in the magazine called "Coming Home," in which "some of today's best-known personalities" write or are interviewed about where they come from or where they live now.

What struck me was the list of 19 celebrities featured in the ad. The list was headed alphabetically by actors Lauren Bacall and Kenneth Branagh, but 12 of the 19 celebrities are or were identified as journalists.

In the same order, they are: Art Buchwald, Katie Couric, Michael Kinsley, Jane Pauley, George Plimpton, Anna Quindlen, Cokie Roberts, Tim Russert, Diane Sawyer, Gloria Steinem, Gay Talese, George Will.

Name recognition and face recognition are the coin of the realm in modern America, a land and nation where image-faces are replacing geography or people. That is what politicians or politician-images -- say, Ross Perot or Michael Huffington -- pay all that money for: recognition as a form of credibility. Money alone no longer guarantees a seat in a New York restaurant, or at the great American table, which is called television. Fame is what gets you in the door; with virtual luck you may be seated next to Kato Kaelin or Scott O'Grady.

But journalists? Guys who used to wear hats indoors? There was still something slightly disreputable about journalism -- a word that once would have gotten you laughed out of a city room -- when I got into what was then called "the business." Reporters were people who stayed up all night, doing less good than cops and nurses. They were paid less than the police, though more than emergency-room nurses.

There were absolutely no qualifications at all to be a newspaper reporter. To be a photographer, you had to be strong enough to lift a camera the size of a breadbox. To be on television, you had to wear a pressed tie and not swear on camera.

One of the stories of the day, probably apocryphal, was about the switch of Bernard Kalb from the New York Times to CBS News. The network assigned him to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam, and when Sen. J. William Fulbright emerged from the hearing room and criticized President Lyndon Johnson, Kalb said, "Wow! What a story!" Then he stuck his microphone under an armpit, reached for a pad and began taking notes.

Now gentlemen and ladies of the press have to have degrees, good teeth and a good accountant -- and millions of people apparently care about where and how they live. Television has changed everything -- I use the word here as a synonym for all technology, including the jet planes that make it possible for Cokie Roberts to get to her lecture dates and Sam Donaldson to his sheep ranch in New Mexico.

Television is a great leveler; it diminishes any large thing it touches -- drama, politics, government and, now, jurisprudence. But it elevates almost all the people on it most often -- entertainers, athletes, journalists -- to heights unreachable in older days.

Here is one example of the change:

There was a time -- and some poor fools who listen to Gordon Liddy and Rush Limbaugh think it's still going on -- when the foreign policy of the United States was greatly influenced by an elite of businessmen and academics who joined together in rather exclusive enclaves with names such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. The other day, I asked President Clinton's deputy national-security adviser, Samuel (Sandy) Berger, who was more important to the White House: Peter Peterson, the greatly credentialed chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, or Thomas Friedman, the talented young guy assigned to foreign affairs and all that by the New York Times.

Mr. Berger did not answer. He just laughed. Who's Pete Peterson? For many practical purposes, Tom Friedman runs the National Security Council.

That is the way it is in the 1990s. There has been a tremendous increase in the celebrity not only of people in the press, but also of those in actual power. The former has a good deal to do with the fact that television demands an exhausting number of man- and woman-hours to fill all those channels every day. The latter has to do with new computer and telephone technologies that make possible around-the-clock survey research and a kind of impersonal public-opinion power.

The judgment and initiative of American politicians and decision-makers in the private sector, too, are atrophying in an environment created by too much polling and market research.

It is not that polls and surveys are "right" or "wrong;" they are often the limited or simply silly reflections of the conventional-wisdom assumptions and imagination of the people who ask the questions. It is that polls are irresistible, because by using them decision-makers can exert authority without accountability. In executing poll-driven strategies, executives avoid blame for mistakes by asserting that they had to respond to the data of the moment.

Fools and journalists rush in where others fear to decide. They do not take sides. Not having power, in the sense of not having to commit to a course of action, can become the most decisive power -- at least when it is coupled with the chance to expose and condemn others who exercise power and fail.

That, of course, is a very big reason why people with institutional power, beginning with the president of the United States, avoid using that power as much as and for as long as possible. Which makes those able to make a civic virtue of non-commitment all the more powerful -- and makes celebrities of people who used to just chase after celebrities.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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