NEW YORK — An epidemic of smugness is making its way through the nation's punditry: a down-and-dirty sneer at high-mindedness. The accusatory question is, "How dare you not get worked up about the Chandra Levy/Gary Condit story?" For Tunku Varadarajan, deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, "The Levy story has brought into relief the greatest flaw of American journalism, which is its arbitrary cleft between news that is 'low brow' and news that is 'fit to print.' " What Mr. Varadarajan calls "high-minded players" in the nation's newsrooms "can often be the foes of the reading (or TV-watching) public." Foes! To those suffering from an enemy crisis after the collapse of communism, missing federal intern Chandra Levy and her reported boyfriend, Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California, are godsends. Time for the quality press to take off the rubber gloves.
Thus, CBS has taken its licks for steering clear of the story. Last week, Dan Rather felt called upon to step up to Don Imus's microphone to justify his reticence. When the CBS Evening News did break its silence, late last week, Mr. Rather noted - as few journalists do - how common are missing persons cases, few of whom have anything to do with members of Congress, and therefore go unheralded and, partly for that reason, unsolved. The best to be said for the current mini-Monica splurge is that it has shamed the police into taking action - at least the sort of photogenic action that sends MSNBC's camera hurtling through Washington's Rock Creek Park, looking for clues. But the same could be said of any missing-person case. Put a spotlight on police anywhere, and they'll look alive. Ask Richard Jewell, the innocent Atlantan whose life was ruined when NBC News fixated on him as the bomber during the 1996 Olympics.
TV's barking heads are drooling. "Meet the Press" welcomes the opportunity to play Hunt the Perp. On July 15, Tim Russert devoted 10 minutes at the start of his show to two guests: a profiler who was not especially well informed about details of the Levy investigation and, to his credit, said so; and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, the Woodward-and-Bernstein of Washington sex, he of the hot pursuit of Paula Jones, Linda Tripp, and Monica Lewinsky. Turning next to Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Mr. Russert led with five minutes on Condit, starting with the burning question of whether the congressman, vulnerable to blackmail, after all, should be deprived of his seat on the House Intelligence Committee. A bit later, Russert worked in three more Condit/Levy minutes with Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Safire, ostensibly there to discuss how George W. Bush is doing as president. Has this barrel no bottom? Evidently not.
Most of all, it's cable news that knows well what slime its bread is buttered with. The summer is an especially fertile time for capsule smarm and celebrity trivia. All the network news channels together net fewer than 1 million viewers at any given minute, but an increment of a few hundred thousand pays off hugely for them.
Still, the bottom line does not fully explain the bottom-feeding frenzy. A growing number of journalists and supervisors in the putatively high-minded institutions of news lack fervent commitments to - dare we say it? - more-serious journalism. The New York Times's report on Republican hanky-panky in Florida was miles too long, smirked Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts on ABC's "This Week" July 15, moving on to the not-brand-new "skinny" on Condit and Levy. Ostensibly serious people don't want to get caught sounding, well, stuffy. They see no reason not to play along with the tabloids. They want to show they can have fun, too. You sense that supposedly educated people are embarrassed if they rank global warming, third-world debt, school troubles, energy strategies, or globalization protests higher in news import than an intern's disappearance.
Never mind that few of the public seem to care that much (if you believe polls). The intern saga is always there, want it or not. Never mind that most of the Levy/Condit "news" is chat about nonevents and pictures of nonfindings. As with baseball, this is one of its secret attractions. Its appeal, if any, may be partly that it is weirdly static - an interruption in the flitting fluff of everyday media. Is it not passing strange, the hold of the cameras relentlessly disclosing nothing? Think of the waters off Martha's Vineyard when JFK Jr.'s plane went down. Think of Ken Starr taking out his garbage and no-commenting. Think of Monica Lewinsky leaving her mother's apartment and no-commenting. Think of last week's nondiscoveries along the woody paths of Rock Creek Park. Like soap operas, these nonstop sagas have the virtue of not requiring the audience's rapt attention. Drop into the saga for a moment here or there, and you are up to speed.
The cost in news credibility is chronic. In 1998, in the thick of Clinton-Lewinsky, a poll showed that the percentage of Americans who said journalists' ethics ranked "high" or "extremely high" was 18 percent - the same as with lawyers and business executives. Journalists dismiss such findings as hypocritical, saying the public flatters itself by deriding its own guilty pleasures. They're right, in part. The public is, in truth, ambivalent - both high-minded and low-minded, crime-stopping and crime-loving, its morals fervent and loose at once. Nothing new about that. Here's what's new: There was a time when we, the public, could turn to high-minded news to reinforce our impulse to stay on the high road. That's hard now. For perspective, mainly we're left to ourselves.
Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University. His book, 'Media Unlimited: The Torrent of Images and Sounds in Modern Life,' will be published by Metropolitan Books next March.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor