Bush and Cocaine -- What Journalists and People Deserve to Know
The Media's Queries Falling Short of Mark
by Norman SolomonDid the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination use cocaine many years ago?
And should journalists insist on finding out?
Fiercely debated inside the national media's echo chamber, such questions tell us that candidates and the media are trying, in their own ways, to dance past engagement with real issues.
Obsessions with drug use and adultery dominate the media landscape. Today's political news is more entertaining -- and more accessible -- than policy. Often, such news requires no more knowledge or thought than is demanded by Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer.
Last September, several members of Congress teamed up with researchers and activists for a dramatic forum about "economic human rights" in this country. Held on Capitol Hill, the hearing focused on matters of profound importance -- and the big news media ignored it. Not a single TV camera was there. In fact, hardly any journalists showed up. They were too busy covering the aftermath Bill Clinton's grand-jury testimony about Monica Lewinsky.
"Thirty million Americans are hungry," noted the Institute for Food and Development Policy, which helped organize the forum. "More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. And the country has the highest rate of child poverty among the industrialized countries."
But savvy members of the nation's punditocracy know that such concerns do not merit prolonged media attention.
Like President Clinton before him, Gov. George W. Bush has now taken to denouncing "the politics of personal destruction." Neither man has acknowledged the hypocrisy of his own politics. News outlets, meantime, have done little to spotlight the huge gaps between policy prescriptions and private actions.
An exception was an unusual column for Time magazine in early 1998, in which Barbara Ehrenreich made a profound point: Clinton "signed a welfare-reform bill that, among many other regrettable things, insults the poor by providing millions for 'chastity education.' A President who snatches alms from impoverished moms, while consigning their libidos to cold showers and prayer meetings, arguably deserves whatever torments await him as punishment for his own sexual derelictions."
Such analysis is rare in political news coverage. As a group, low-income parents do not qualify for sustained media empathy -- they are more often the targets of news treatment that ranges from condescending to defamatory.
Questions of drug abuse can have a legitimate tie to policy issues. Bush is eager to downplay what he did when "young and irresponsible," but in recent years he has promoted imprisonment for illegal drug use. In 1997, the Texas governor signed into law a bill that enabled judges to throw people in jail for possessing under one gram of cocaine.
But the possibility of a politician's hypocrisy is dwarfed by the issue of social justice: While illicit drug use is common among all classes and races, such stern penalties are largely inflicted on the poor and dark-skinned.
For all their well-publicized ambivalence about "gotcha" journalism, the most influential editors, reporters and pundits are routinely engaged in "don't wanna getcha" journalism when it comes to issues of wealthy privilege and corporate leverage.
Amassing a huge campaign war chest may come off as a bit tacky. But the lucrative embrace of big-money donors -- accompanied by tangible backing from Wall Street -- is widely reported as a clear sign that a candidate is ready to be a prime-time player.
As this century nears its end, the crucial deceptions in national politics are not about cocaine or adultery. They involve the power of those with enough economic leverage to dominate Washington and severely limit democratic decision-making. But we don't hear many journalists asking tough questions about such matters.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media" (Common Courage Press, 1-800-497-3207). You will soon see a review of it right here at The Progress Report.
Will mainstream media ever give serious, sustained coverage to economic justice issues? What's your opinion?
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?