Righting the Writing -
The Politics of Prose

by Judy Bachrach

You only have to look at the media obsessions of the past summer to realize how far we have come. Lizzie Grubman, a bratty young woman acting out in the Hamptons. Gary Condit, a congressman who was tried and found guilty of murder by the press, despite a striking lack of evidence to prove he was guilty of anything more than philandering. Psychics who claimed to know the fate of Condit's missing girlfriend, Chandra Levy, earnestly implored by talk show hosts, Paula Zahn most notably, to provide ever more precise details of her whereabouts. These became, over the course of months, the solitary interests of a famished public, its appetite whetted -- but never quite sated - by an eternity of coverage, much of it bad.

Nor was last summer our only plunge into the depths of dirt. One has only to look back just a few years to the loose flailings of Paula Jones and then the Starr investigation, to retrieve the iniquities of nonsense. The trivial, the mendacious, the wrong-headed - all these could be found, night and day one our television sets, in the newspapers, no supposition too feeble to air or explore, no errors (and there were many, even in such stories) corrected.

The media had awarded itself carte blanche, in other words. It could lie as much as a congressman, it could pontificate as much as a president (and some of those mini-pontificators, by the way, would have been well advised to hang a few curtains in their own glass houses), it could be as vicious and irresponsible as a Hamptons girl. And it could do all this with impunity. The First Amendment, once conceived to shield unpopular sentiments from the tyranny of government, was transformed into an all-purpose guillotine.

I think of all this because now - ever since September - a new and much-touted sobriety has set in, not just in the nation, but in the press. In part this has occurred because of the hideous numbers of deaths. In part, because the media itself is now becoming, with every packet of anthrax mailed, almost as much of a target as the victims in the World Trade Center. It took a nationwide tragedy to fix our drifting minds, to stabilize our excesses. For those who look to find solace in the depths of disaster, there is certainly some here. The press has become what it was riginally intended to be: industrious, curious, analytical, some of its members very brave - brave enough, for instance, to die, as a few already have and more undoubtedly will, in this strange and relentless conflict without borders.

But how long this respite will last is another matter. I have no doubt the tragedies will continue, but I have serious concerns about the media and its ability to stay the course of the new sobriety. By new sobriety, I do not mean that all stories have to be grim, weepy and purposeful. There will be plenty of that, in any case. But I do mean that we have to watch ourselves carefully. Former indulgences should no longer be tolerated, or not tolerated for long. We have created, in part because of our own restlessness, an attention-deficit nation, hungry for stimulants, addicted to thrills and novelty, however specious. We have to re-create, re-examine, re-fashion the concept of what is news. And for that we have to re-create, re-examine and re-fashion ourselves.

Judy Bachrach is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC and a contributor to Vanity Fair. Her latest book is "Harry and Tina come to America", the story of how Harold Evans and Tina Brown hijacked American Journalism.

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