Speak No Evil

Thomas McCarthy’s new movie Spotlight has been likened, in both form and quality, to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men.  The comparison may at first seem like a cliché, but after seeing both movies this past weekend—the latter for the fourth or fifth time—I realize the connection is both unavoidable and entirely germane.

When you get right down to it, Spotlight isn’t a companion to All the President’s Men so much as a remake.  While the two films are by no means identical—they take place in different cities at different times and have completely different plots—their agendas are one and the same, and they succeed for exactly the same reasons.

The agenda, then, is to demonstrate how justice and democracy cannot exist anywhere without freedom of the press, and how investigative journalism itself is a long, difficult, boring process that—counterintuitively and against all common sense—makes for positively riveting cinema.

It’s easy enough to talk about the preeminence of the First Amendment and of speaking truth to power, but Spotlight goes a step further by showing us how near-impossible that task really is—even for the most well-equipped and widely-circulated newspaper in town.

McCarthy’s movie—in case you’ve been kept out of the loop—is about how the Boston Globe in 2001 uncovered evidence of rampant sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which the church’s leadership—up to and including Archbishop Bernard Law himself—spent decades covering up.  All told, some 250 Boston-area priests were alleged to have sexually molested young boys and girls, with the “official” victim count at 552.  God knows what the true figure really is.

Like Pakula’s film, which famously recounted the Washington Post’s investigations into Watergate, Spotlight features a small group of unknown reporters undertaking a methodical, comprehensive, long-shot project to reveal that a gargantuan and revered American institution is rotten to the core.  In All the President’s Men, that institution was the federal government during the Nixon administration.  In Spotlight, it’s the Catholic Church.

The bottom line—the implied moral to the story—is that were it not for the Spotlight team’s exhaustive and heroic efforts, the Globe’s revelations about predatory priests and a corrupt hierarchy could very easily have remained a secret forever, denying justice and any kind of closure to an entire generation of molested kids, not to mention all the generations that came before.

To this conclusion, one might naturally ask, “How?”  How could that many children be raped—physically and emotionally—without a single one of them speaking up and being heard?

Spotlight’s answer:  Many of them did speak up, but nobody wanted to listen.

Fourteen years after the fact, we now know beyond doubt that the Catholic Church  in Boston engaged in a conspiracy of silence on the epidemic of sexual abuse, moving problem priests from one parish to another while saying nothing publicly about what those priests were up to.  (It was as a direct consequence of the Boston revelations that similar scandals came to light in virtually every Christian country on Earth.)

What we didn’t know—at least not as fully as we should have—is that the archdiocese was not the only player in this terrible drama.  Far from acting alone, Cardinal Law and his gang received a crucial assist from the people in the pews:  those in the Catholic community who loved and respected the Church and would never, for a moment, have entertained the possibility that a member of this institution could do something wrong—let alone something criminal and obscene.

For millennia, clergymen of all faiths have served (often rightly) as the most trustworthy members of society—men of education, wisdom and unimpeachable moral fiber.  It didn’t hurt that, in the case of Catholicism, these men also had God on their speed dial and could invoke divine punishment or reward to bend their parishioners to their will.

And so whenever there was a whisper about some priest doing this or that to the altar boys under his tutelage, most Catholics—including a few who worked at the Globe—dismissed the allegation before the thought could even settle into their minds.

Like a parent who hears that his son is dealing drugs or a Patriots fan who learns that Tom Brady was doing something fishy with those footballs—or, indeed, an idealistic citizen who views the government as a benevolent force for good—churchgoers could not bring themselves to see what was directly in front of their nose

They didn’t want it to be true, so they convinced themselves it was false.

That, in so many words, is what journalism is for:  To tell you what you’d rather not hear.  Reporters have resources and privileges that ordinary citizens do not, which makes it inevitable that the press will disappoint your rosy views of humanity every now and again.

As such, it also means that news outlets will forever be on the front lines in the battle for truth, justice and accountability.  Reporters and editors have no professional obligation except to find out what the hell’s going on.  That’s why movies about newspapermen tend to be so entertaining:  Sometimes fact really is more compelling than fiction.  In a moral universe, it’s the only thing that matters.

As with all major institutional scandals, the details mean everything.  The triumph of Spotlight is that it allows the survivors of the Church rape epidemic to have their day in court—that is, to explain precisely what being held captive by a priest entailed—along with those who had everything to lose from the publication of this story, from the archbishop to the priests to the family members who chose to look the other way.

In so doing, the film shows how the process of newsgathering is inherently a dreary, depressing, often hostile endeavor in which powerful forces will try everything they can to prevent you from doing your job.  A job, we might add, that depends overwhelmingly on cooperation from the public, which includes those same institutions.  The term “Gordian Knot” leaps oddly to mind.

To break the Watergate caper, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward needed to draw connections between key White House figures—“follow the money,” they were sagely told—and they did so by extracting information from witnesses who had every reason to keep their insights to themselves.  Some of this involved misdirection and sleight of hand—asking a witness to “confirm” information you don’t actually know is always a neat trick—some involved dumb luck, and some required nothing except patience, asking the right questions and a near-pathological refusal to take “no” for an answer.

With Spotlight, it’s déjà vu all over again.  The Globe team, working separately and together, accumulates its information through a combustible mixture of instinct, legal wrangling, library basement research and good old-fashioned interviewing.  A late-inning confrontation between Michael Keaton and a representative for child victims is a virtual carbon copy of Dustin Hoffman’s run-in with a Florida lawyer with a cabinet full of crucial documents.  In both instances, the reporter explains that his paper is running the story with or without this person’s cooperation, so he might as well stand on the right side of justice.

Long story short (too late?):  Revelatory, in-depth reporting does not happen by accident.  It’s the result of thousands of man hours of detective work—and all the court orders, dead ends, slammed doors and wrecked lives that go with it—and when is it done carefully and seen through to the end, it can change the world.

The Globe would eventually print more than 600 articles in connection with the Church abuse tragedy, for which the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.  It’s worth noting that the award—the most prestigious in all of American journalism—was not in the category of “Investigative Reporting,”  “Explanatory Reporting” or “Local Reporting,” although any of those would surely have fit the bill.

Rather, the Pulitzer Prize Board saved the Globe’s output for its most distinguished category of all:  “Public Service.”

Advertisements

The Gospel of Jon

Probably the biggest misconception about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is that it’s a satire of the daily news.

It’s not.  It’s a satire of news outlets and the comically inept ways in which they operate.

This has always and forever been the case with Stewart’s program, as it was for his predecessor, Craig Kilborn.  From the first, the whole idea of The Daily Show was to lampoon and exaggerate how America’s supposedly legitimate news sources—be they newspapers, TV networks or Internet sites—tend to neglect or abuse their most basic and sacred obligation of keeping American citizens informed about what’s going on in the world, all the while distinguishing what’s important from what’s not.

As for the news itself—local, national or global—well, that’s but a secondary concern in this scheme.  It’s the grist in Comedy Central’s mill of silliness.  While it has certainly helped that current events have managed to be so utterly ridiculous over the past 16 years, keeping our leaders honest is not The Daily Show’s core competence.  As Stewart himself has said, that particular responsibility lies solely with the American media that presumes to take this stuff seriously.  Stewart’s job is merely to illustrate how depressingly often they fail.

Of course, as everyone knows, this arrangement is all strictly theoretical.  From the moment in 2004 when Stewart turned up on CNN’s Crossfire and called its hosts “partisan hacks” who are “hurting America,”  The Daily Show has increasingly—if unintentionally—assumed the status of a news program in its own right.  Poll after poll has shown that, as a TV personality, Stewart is as trusted as the likes of Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and every other talking head who fancies himself a newsman.  Sometimes he even tops the list.

What is more, Stewart’s would-be counterparts have long bought in to this topsy-turvy reality, treating him as their moral equal or, in the case of Fox News, attacking him as if he were any other member of their small-screen political scrum.

It’s a shame, in a way, that Stewart’s program has amassed such a wealth of respectability among its viewers—particularly those within the journalism profession—since it more-or-less proves that Stewart has been right all along about our national news-reporting apparatus being a giant blithering travesty.

Indeed, even apart from the implications about American journalism, it’s always dangerous for a decidedly countercultural figure to become mainstream.  If the whole premise of being a vulgar, tomato-throwing court jester is that you are a shunned, powerless outsider, how do you retain your identity and street cred once you get accepted into polite society?  How do you avoid selling out or becoming neutered?

In fact, Jon Stewart has avoided this horrid fate, and I would attribute it to two critical factors.  First, as a writer and producer, he understands the mind of his audience enough to know when his shtick is no longer working and has the wherewithal to self-correct, if necessary.

Second, and most importantly:  He was never that edgy in the first place.

We may have this vision of Stewart as some kind of subversive, Earth-scorching renegade.  In fact, he is exactly what he’s always been:  an old-fashioned Jewish vaudevillian with a rubber face and a bottomless supply of 1980s pop culture references.  A sharp, amiable failed movie actor who happens to possess a supersized interest in current affairs and a ferocious desire for social justice.

As a comedian, he does not have the raw, angry bite of Lewis Black.  He isn’t a natural improv like Stephen Colbert.  He doesn’t express his views as bluntly as Larry Wilmore.  His nebbish sense of cultural inferiority is not as pronounced as John Oliver’s.  (OK, that last one is a close call.)

Nor, for that matter, are his political and cultural observations as pointed as those of his successor, Trevor Noah—the 31-year-old South African who nearly got burned alive on Twitter after daring to say a negative word about Israel (among other things).

I’ve seen Stewart perform stand-up twice.  On the stage, he is pretty much the same quirky, endearing fellow he is at his anchor desk—indeed, a good chunk of his material was lifted from old Daily Show scripts—but there is precious little in his act that rises to the level of brilliance.  He might be among the most purely enjoyable comics working today, but he is hardly an innovator in the field.

So why, then—if all this is true—does he depart his post this Thursday as one of the most beloved and indispensable hosts in the history of American television?

There have been many theories these last many weeks—ruminations about how Stewart’s honesty and moral indignation reflect those of millions of others all across the world—but I think his X factor can be traced to a single word:  Gratitude.

Having tried his hand at all sorts of random, dead-end jobs after college, then finally diving into the New York stand-up circuit—an environment where success is inevitably preceded by many years of failure—Stewart understands how lucky he is to have had a long, steady job doing what he loves.  That he has surpassed all conceivable expectations makes his gig all the sweeter, but it has seemingly never given way to laziness or arrogance.  Notwithstanding how exhausting 16 years of hosting would be for anyone, Stewart still approaches every show with a glint in his eye that says, “I can’t believe they pay me for this.”

The Daily Show is an old-fashioned labor of love between Stewart and his team of writers and correspondents, many of whom have been around nearly as long as he has.  Once Stewart leaves, it’s not that the program “won’t be the same.”  It won’t exist at all, no matter what it says on the awning outside 733 11th Avenue in New York.  Jon hosted the show and, at this point, we can rightly say that Jon is the show.

Not that we have much cause to mope about this latest end-of-a-television-era.  Since January, Larry Wilmore has done terrific work with The Nightly Show, Stewart’s chaser on the same network.  John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has swiftly become appointment television over on HBO, where Oliver is able to deep-dive into obscure but critical news topics in a way that Stewart, on basic cable, never could.  On September 8, Stephen Colbert begins his tenure at The Late Show on CBS, which may well become more iconic and entertaining than any of us could possibly imagine.

And wouldn’t you know it:  Every one of those guys (and plenty more) got his big break on The Daily Show, where Stewart, channeling his inner Lorne Michaels, was able to spot nascent comedic talent and allow it to bloom.

In that way, Thursday’s finale won’t be a farewell to Jon Stewart on the airwaves, for his work is everywhere—namely, in the success of all his former underlings who will now carry on the legacy he created.  An entire generation of comics with a single common ancestor.

Not bad for a short, neurotic Jewish kid from New Jersey.

Nothing to See Here

The problem isn’t that Hillary’s burrito bowl doesn’t matter.  The problem is that it does.

Oh, it certainly shouldn’t be anybody’s concern that Hillary Clinton popped into a Chipotle somewhere along her magical mystery tour through the Midwest last week.  Contrary to popular belief, presidential candidates do occasionally eat lunch.  It’s not an inherently newsworthy event.

In fact, you’d need to be more or less clinically insane to be so invested in a potential president—19 months before the election—that you wonder where (and what) they ate this week.  Or ever.

Many words leap to mind.  One of them is “stalker.”

But, of course, that’s what our country’s venerable press corps spent its time doing in the opening days of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

From the moment the former secretary of state announced her candidacy in a YouTube video on April 12, a gaggle of reporters raced to her roving campaign headquarters—a Chevy Explorer named Scooby—and they’ve been holding her road trip under a microscope ever since.

When word came that Clinton had patronized a Chipotle without anyone noticing, the media couldn’t let it go.  Over the next several days, no stone of Burritogate was left unturned:  What Clinton ordered, whether she left anything in the tip jar, why she was there incognito and didn’t mingle with other customers.

This is probably the moment for us to wryly observe that if the media had been as maniacally vigilant about the Iraq War as they are about a former senator’s dining habits, the last dozen-odd years of Middle East calamities might have been avoided.  But that’s a cliché for another day.

The fact, in any case, is that the press is treating this early phase of the 2016 election pretty much as you’d expect:  By clinging onto every last microscopic detail of the two parties’ respective contenders and wringing as much meaning out of them as they can.

At bottom, this is the result of two simultaneous—and seemingly unavoidable—conditions.  First, the reporters in question apparently only exist in order to cover these sorts of things.  Because, you know, it’s not like there’s anything else happening in America that might provide a better use of their time.

And second, since the first primary ballots of the 2016 race won’t be cast for another nine months, they really have no choice but to cover literally anything the candidates do.  Thus far, Clinton is the only active campaigner on the Democratic side, so there you have it.

The logic of it, however depressing, seems airtight.

It’s not.  There is a choice involved here, both for journalists and for us:  The choice to look away.  To ignore everything to do with the 2016 election until—oh, I don’t know—the year 2016.  To wait patiently until something interesting happens, rather than trying to create interest out of nothing.

We could allow ourselves a scenario—if we so chose—in which presidential aspirants would go on their whistle stop tours of Iowa and New Hampshire for years on end, but without reporters and cameras breathing down their necks 24 hours a day.  Grant the good residents of these early primary states the attention of the candidates, but not of the entire country.  Really, what do the rest of us care?

There are those—particularly on the interwebs—who will insist to the last that early nuggets from the campaign trail can serve as insights into a candidate’s character and managerial style, and are therefore worth covering and commenting upon.

As much as I would love to dismiss this theory outright as a load of hooey—political pop psychology run amok—I am in the unfortunate position of agreeing with it.  At least some of the time.

For instance, it became clear in the early days of John McCain’s first run that his scrappy, welcoming attitude toward the press would make him an uncommonly congenial and entertaining nominee (a fact that, admittedly, didn’t quite hold the second time).  Conversely, I think Rand Paul’s already lengthy history of arrogance and condescension toward reporters asking him simple questions should rightly give pause to anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to make this guy America’s chief diplomat to the world.

I’m not convinced, however, that it requires two full years of coverage for the truth about these people to come out.  Indeed, I am as certain as I can be that a person who completely tunes out all “news” about the 2016 election from now until, say, next February will be no less informed of its essentials than someone watching The Rachel Maddow Show every night between now and then.

I should add that, so long as reporters continue hounding candidates day and night, I have no particular problem with viewers at home following it as pure, disposable entertainment.

Just don’t pretend that it’s anything else.

Personally, I think it’s kind of hilarious that Hillary Clinton has named her campaign van Scooby.  It’s goofy, whimsical and endearing—and possibly a latent grab for the stoner vote, considering whom it’s named after.

But I did not need to know that.  It’s not important, and it reveals nothing relevant about Clinton that I won’t learn through debates, speeches and actual primaries.

More to the point, I did not need a professional journalist to tell me the van’s name, knowing what that journalist might have learned and written about instead.

The key in covering a round-the-clock event that goes on forever is knowing how to distinguish the things that matter from the things that don’t.  When reporters treat everything equally—as if where a candidate eats lunch is just as important as what he or she thinks about climate change—they license voters to do the same thing, leading to a campaign that is dangerously trivial.

The trouble, you see, is that talking about a trip to Chipotle is a lot more fun than talking about, say, ISIS.  Given the choice, there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t secretly (if not openly) prefer the former, even though we know the latter is infinitely more consequential and pertinent to being president of the United States.

Which means that we can’t be given the choice.

We can’t have our laziest instincts accommodated by being told that following the most inane details of a presidential campaign makes us informed citizens.  It doesn’t.  It just makes us voyeurs and turns our candidates into exhibitionists.  To elevate irrelevant pablum to a level of respectability is to enable both us and them into being our worst possible selves.

As we well know, the cultural erosion this practice creates does not end with the campaign.  Think about how many precious TV hours and newspaper columns have been expended on the exploits of the first family, or on the president’s March Madness bracket.  Or the fact that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is still a thing.

The human need for trivia is plainly innate and inescapable—hence the proliferation of reality TV, People and the National Football League.

However, government and politics are supposed to exist outside the world of superficiality, not least because the future of the republic depends upon them.

Is it too much to ask that we take this one aspect of American life seriously?

If our press corps didn’t spend days on Hillary Clinton’s burrito runs and the like, would we really be unable the handle the stuff that really matters?

Don’t answer that.

Don’t Make Friends

Life Itself, a new documentary about the life and death of film critic Roger Ebert, features many talking head interviews with friends and admirers from throughout Ebert’s life, who expound on Ebert’s virtues—and a few of his vices—in order to contextualize his significance in the twin realms of movies and film criticism.

An obvious take-home message of the movie is that Ebert was truly one-of-a-kind—the rare critic who became as well-known (and as beloved) as many of the people he wrote about.  Indeed, perhaps the most peculiar sight in Life Itself is the number of filmmakers who reminisce about ol’ Roger as if he had been a close, personal friend.  By all outward appearances, he was.

You’ve got Martin Scorsese citing Ebert’s unerring support for saving Scorsese’s career at a point when cocaine and despair could have very easily killed it (and him).

Ramin Bahrani, a moderately successful independent director, credits Ebert with effectively putting him on the map, which he did not merely with glowing four-star reviews but through tireless advocacy and unofficial patronage.  He used his own high status to build up that of someone whose films he thought deserved to be seen, serving as a friend and mentor along the way.

(We might as well also mention that the director of Life Itself, Steve James, made a documentary in 1994, Hoop Dreams, which Ebert proclaimed the best movie of the 1990s.)

On a personal level, these and other examples of Ebert’s huge heart and sense of moral justice are admirable and a wonder to behold.  Would that more powerful people used their influence for good, not evil, and we’d be living in a far more pleasant society.  Who could possibly object?

And yet, we are left with the inconvenient fact that Ebert was, after all, a critic, and a critic is supposed to be objective—or at least aspire (and, for Pete’s sake, appear) to be as such.  For a movie reviewer to be forming bonds of friendship with movie makers—well, a term like “fraternizing with the enemy” leaps to mind, not to mention “conflict of interest.”

It’s an issue first of ethics, and second of judgment, and we are obligated to consider both.

I offer it as a three-part question:  Should any beat writer become close with those about whom he is writing?  If so, is he then bound either not to write about them at all, or to issue a clear “full disclosure” notice to readers upon doing so?  And if not, has he not then surrendered any notion of objectivity, even if he makes a strong effort to separate personal feelings from professional responsibility?

In the case of Ebert, one could argue that he never attempted to disentangle his emotions from his intellect in the first place.  Ebert himself argued as much, saying that he worked according to the sentiment by fellow critic Robert Warshow, “A man goes to the movies.  The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”  In other words:  Impartiality be damned.

As for the possibility of being corrupted by friendships, Life Itself argues that Ebert did not lose his perspective when appraising films by people he knew and liked, and shows (albeit with only one example) that he was capable of filing negative reviews even when, for personal reasons, he had every incentive not to.  In the end, according to the documentary, he resisted the urge to become a professional hack.  It is left to each of us to ascertain whether this assessment is true.

But what if you’re a member of a profession for which impartiality is not merely recommended and preferred, but is outright mandatory?

For instance:  What if you’re a journalist?

We assume—nay, we hope and pray—that the reporters and columnists on whom we depend to tell us what is happening in the world and to keep our leaders honest are not cavorting around with the very figures they are meant to skewer and critique.

After all, in the world of political journalism, the question isn’t whether becoming friendly with politicians might distort a journalist’s work.  The question, rather, is how could it not?

And yet we have spectacles like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where journalists and lawmakers drink and intermingle on live television, suggesting all-too-convincingly that this is not the only night of the year in which the Fourth Estate enjoys a social relationship with its would-be targets.  The scribblers of America might think they are not being unduly influenced by this, but we have only their word on which to rely.  (Most of the time, we don’t even have that.)

America’s judicial system addresses the subject of impartiality through recusals, whereby a judge abstains from presiding over any case in which, because of the people involved, he or she has (or might have) a rooting interest.

The process of jury selection functions in the same way.  Sitting before the judge of a pending trial, the first question all prospective jurors are asked is whether they know the plaintiff, defendant or any of the witnesses personally.  Of course, there are many reasons a juror might be led to favor one side over the other, but it all begins with personal connections, be they friendly or hostile.

Would you want your vindictive ex-girlfriend in the jury box at your own trial?  Would you want the best friend of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev among the jurors at his?

I didn’t think so.  It would be a travesty and a miscarriage of justice, and our system is all the more laudable for taking such pains to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Why shouldn’t the press be held to this same high standard?  Why are reporters allowed to so casually exchange pleasantries with the movers and shakers of government one day, and then be expected to disinterestedly grill them on TV and in newspapers the next?  Since when do any of these folks merit our benefit of the doubt?

The fact is that personal relationships are inherently corrosive to our ability to assess a person’s character and actions fairly.  That’s why friendships are so wonderful and hatreds so toxic.  The former allow us to fool ourselves into thinking certain people are more perfect than they actually are, while the latter do precisely the opposite.

Because this is how human nature works, and because we cannot pretend otherwise, we must make every effort to prevent such bonds from taking root in areas of professional life in which they do not belong.  And when they do take root, those involved should have the decency to call a spade a spade, lest they make a mockery of themselves, of us and of the eternal search for justice and truth.

Anything else would be unseemly.  Ebert would not approve.

Junk Food

I doubt that I will ever actually read Double Down, the new chronicle of the 2012 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

The book, released last week, has accrued enormous press coverage in recent days, swiftly becoming the “official” account of the proverbial horse race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, thanks to a peanut gallery of firsthand accountants who dish on the personalities involved in a presidential election that, if not our country’s most exciting, was nonetheless (as the joke goes) certainly the most recent.

Political junkie that I am, I have naturally skimmed the excerpts from the tome published in the New York Times and TIME and the various analyses that have followed about the meaning of the 2012 race in the context of U.S. history and, of course, the eventual campaign of 2016.

But that is as far as I wish to go.

I do not require every last detail about what Obama and Romney were doing and thinking at every moment of their contest for the Oval Office.

I did not need to know—as I now do—that Romney’s vice presidential vetting committee codenamed their operation “Goldfish” and referred to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as “Pufferfish” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as “Pescado.”

Nor, frankly, do I much care about the minutiae of the Obama administration’s “poll testing” about whether to replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton.  For Pete’s sake, any self-respecting incumbent is going to explore every available avenue for success, and Obama is no different.  There is nothing especially groundbreaking about this so-called scoop, and none of these disclosures means much in the broad sweep of history.

Yet I marinate in this piffle all the same, and will probably continue so long as it keeps popping up on my news feed.

I don’t want to, but I do.  I just can’t help myself.  I’m a junkie, and this is my junk food.

Mind you, political junk food should not be confused with political guilty pleasures.  There is a distinction between the two that, while narrow, is worth pointing out.

A guilty pleasure is something that is dismissed in polite society as vulgar and trivial, but might nonetheless contain some redeeming value.  Take, for instance, my occasional pastime of eating an entire jar of peanut butter with a spoon at 2 o’clock in the morning:  No, it’s not something I could get away with in public, but hey, think of all the protein!

Per contra, junk food is, well, junk.  It’s pure sugar and fat, it does nothing for you in the long run, you consume it in a moment of weakness and feel disgusted with yourself a few minutes later.  Rather than peanut butter, picture killing a whole jar of Nutella.  (You know who you are.)

So how might we differentiate these two concepts in the worlds of government and politics?

I am extremely tempted to argue that the entire experience of following a political campaign constitutes a guilty pleasure, with most of its constituent parts nothing but pure junk—sparkly distractions yielding heat but no light.  The boring legislative sausage-making that (sometimes) occurs between elections—that’s the part that matters.

Halperin and Heilemann have defended Double Down against the inevitable charges of gossip-mongering by asserting that all of its goodies were subject to rigorous cross-checking, and that any assertions that could not be verified, no matter how titillating, remained on the cutting room floor.  In short, they have committed journalism, not tabloid hackery.

Here’s a thought:  They have actually committed both simultaneously, and there’s your problem.  In today’s environment, where personality not only trumps substance but is considered substantive itself, any stray piece of dirt about a political figure, no matter how inconsequential, is considered axiomatically newsworthy, provided that it is obtained in a journalistically valid manner.

My plea to the peddlers of this troubling tendency:  Knock it off.

Don’t elevate the status of disposable schoolyard chatter into the realm of respectability.  Don’t conflate valuable information with pure muck.  Learn to discriminate between the two, for many of your readers cannot, but they jolly well should.

By no means do I advocate an end to all frivolity in political reporting, just as I wouldn’t dream of purging the supermarket shelves of all candy and chocolate.  Such trifles will always have a place in our society—namely, to provide a mental release from the weight of the serious business of life.

All I ask is that we recognize our depraved desserts for what they are, and not pretend they are wholesome and nutritious.

We can allow ourselves the occasional indulgence, but let’s not make every day Halloween.

Friendly Fire

The key to the significance of the Frost-Nixon interviews is that Richard Nixon did not realize what he was getting himself into.

Nor, for that matter, did he have much reason to feel ill at ease.

Having granted no previous public interviews since leaving office, Nixon figured his conversations with David Frost would be a cake walk.  A puff piece.  A string of softballs lobbed at a man who, for all of his alleged crimes, nonetheless was such a golden “get” for Frost—a foreign talk show host with no particular interest in hard news events—that to ask him challenging, confrontational questions would surely be an elementary breach of etiquette.

That Frost wound up being the man to wrest a sort-of confession from the 37th president regarding his involvement in the Watergate affair was a rather improbable eventuality, to say the least, and the very fact of the incongruity of the Frost-Nixon face-off is crucial to recognizing the contribution to journalism that was made by David Frost, who died over the Labor Day weekend at age 74.

While Frost would go on to forge a thoroughly respectable career in journalism, in the mid-1970s he was a mere playboy entertainer, caring about little more than women and ratings.  Securing an audience with the disgraced President Nixon, whom he paid an unprecedented sum for the privilege, was his means of building an American following and thereby extending his brand.

Accordingly, Frost did not harbor the sort of vendetta or anger against Nixon that would naturally have led to the sort of interrogation to which Nixon had no interest in subjecting himself.  Once the program got underway and Frost’s probes about Watergate grew increasingly pointed and relentless, Frost was nearly as surprised as Nixon.

The moral of this story, however disheartening, is instructive for the political media environment of today:  Given the choice, public figures tend only to grant interviews to reporters or networks that they perceive to be friendly toward them.  Even for a politician whose record is clean as a whistle, there is precious little to be gained from an encounter with a media entity that might be challenging or hostile.

So long as this remains the case—that is, so long as public officials take every opportunity to skirt responsibility for their actions in the public square—the situation would seem to call for a proliferation of journalists who are simultaneously friendly, fair and stealthily tough.

By no means is this an impossible task.  Comedy Central, that most sober of American news sources, does it all the time.

As a case in point:  Probably the most interesting interview conducted by John Oliver during his eight-week stint as temporary host of The Daily Show was with New York’s junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Amidst the lighthearted banter to which the satirical news program is entitled, Oliver pressed Senator Gillibrand to explain the rather intriguing contradiction between her calls for getting tough on America’s finance industry and the fact that she has received more campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs than any other U.S. senator.  If Gillibrand is truly the independent representative of the people that she claims to be, Oliver asked, then what exactly was Goldman getting in return for its cold hard cash?

Gillibrand, who likely did not expect such a pointed inquiry on a program that is of like mind as her on most matters, did not even attempt to answer Oliver’s query—a response that perhaps revealed more than any actual response would have done.

Oliver’s was a perfectly legitimate question—an inescapable one, given the facts—and the key is that it was offered in good faith.  It contained no malicious intent, nor did it imply or suggest any wrongdoing on Senator Gillibrand’s part, yet it was nonetheless a hard-hitting and intellectually rigorous interrogation.

“The reason I want to talk to you about this […] is because I like you,” said Oliver.  “It’s easier to have this conversation with someone you expect of being duplicitous.  But I think it’s perhaps more interesting with someone who you want to help make you feel better.”

In other words, one stands a better chance of arriving at the truth of the matter if one begins the conversation portraying a basic level of decency toward the subject, rather than a heaping mound of suspicion.

Politicians, like suspected terrorists, are likelier to provide useful information to someone whom they have come to trust and respect, rather than someone who is merely attempting to wear them down.

Attempting to get answers from someone you openly detest will surely prove a futile endeavor.  But doing the same with someone whom you want to give every last benefit of the doubt?  Now you’re getting somewhere.