It is the emphasis on personalities rather than issues. It is the urge to berate rather than to comment. It is the craving for the easy joke rather than the difficult explanation. It is the journalism of personal destruction and, unfortunately, there is nothing new about it.
In colonial times, the federalists and the anti-federalists started their own newspapers for the sole purpose of lambasting the other. Six decades into the next century, editorial writers called Abe Lincoln a drunkard, compared him to an ape; a few journals even called for, and then celebrated, his assassination. At the turn of the twentieth century, the tabloid papers of Hearst and Pulitzer and others were, at times, almost equally vicious.
Then came a kind of golden age of opinion writing. Men like Walter Lippmann, the Alsop brothers, and James Reston, to name but a few, elevated the craft by believing that it was their mission to educate more than entertain, to plumb meaning more than to call names.
Today, the journalism of personal destruction is back. Lyndon Johnson helped it to return by the way he handled the war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon helped it to return by the way he handled Watergate. Bill Clinton helped it to return by the way he handled an intern, among other people and things.
And so, as the preceding suggests, sometimes the journalism of personal destruction seems justified, striking the reporter as irresistible and the reader as well-deserved. Ultimately, though, neither is true. The journalism of personal destruction savages the dignity of the press no less than it does the press’s targets.
The queen of this kind of writing these days is Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Ms. Dowd recently found the federal government’s behavior reminiscent of that of the Amity town council in Jaws. Funny line. She recently accused President Bush of timidity, referring to his "burrowing back into his feather pillow." Funny image.
But what the Maureen Dowds of the media world do not seem to realize, or care about, is the extent to which their writing is an act of shrinkage. It trivializes not just the people they criticize, which is what they mean to do, but the events of which they write.
Dowd was, for example, among the leading critics of presidential candidate Al Gore last year, making far too much of his mannerisms, his speech patterns, his clothing choices. Yes, we all laughed at the poor old Al, especially those of us who were supporting dear old George — but, whether we knew it or not, we were also laughing at the august process of choosing a president for the grandest nation on earth, making it appear at times little more than fodder for jokes, inspiration for insults.
Yes, we all laughed. But the joke is on us.
On the other hand, there is what we might call the journalism of issue illumination. Perhaps the reigning figure here is also employed by The New York Times, and Thomas L. Friedman’s column on Sunday, Dec. 9 is a perfect example.
Friedman wants President Bush to set an example for young men and women, to call on them to enlist in various volunteer groups or the armed forces or even the FBI or CIA. The respect of Americans for their president these days is such, Friedman believes, that "[p]eople would enlist in droves." He goes on: "Imagine if the president called on every corporate chieftan to take a 10 percent pay cut, starting him himself, so fewer employees would have to be laid off. Plenty would do it."
In other words, Friedman wants Bush to capitalize on the nation’s current patriotic fervor; not to do so, he says, is to waste a wondrous opportunity to make a stronger, more socially responsible nation that will be better able to ensure a lasting peace.
For the purposes of this column, it doesn’t matter whether Friedman is right or wrong, although the former seems much more a possibility to me than the latter. What is important is how Friedman expresses himself: with dignity instead of punch lines, with careful reasoning instead of cheap shots, with as much respect for the president with whom he disagrees as for his own ideas.
It is, in short, journalism by a grownup, for grownups. I wish there were more of it.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .