Follow the Semen

articles
Aug. 5 1998 3:30 AM

Follow the Semen

Monica Lewinsky's blue cocktail dress is a red herring.

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In dealing with the real issue, the American press is hobbled by its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Like Macdonald's fictitious scientist, it is uncomfortable with abstractions. Flytrap is a case of journalists doing precisely what press critics are always hectoring them to do--just supply the facts, don't indulge in opinion or conclusion--and shows the inadequacy of that journalistic ideal. Some might say the inadequacies of the Flytrap coverage are a point in favor of the British system, in which journalists are freer to reveal their opinions. (The American convention is not quite what it seems: American journalists are permitted to act on their prejudices--the news columns and air time devoted to Flytrap wouldn't make sense unless reporters and editors believed the accusations. They're just not permitted to express this belief.) At the very least, Flytrap illustrates the need for less fact chasing and more analysis and illumination of the "what should we do about it" question.

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Or maybe the moral is simply the need for more humility about how useful journalism is in addressing matters of public importance. Fifteen years ago, Sidney Blumenthal, now a top adviser to President Clinton, wrote an incisive piece for the New Republic examining why then-President Ronald Reagan's frequent factual misstatements hadn't made him as unpopular as Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter. The answer was that the reporters who assailed Reagan's howlers were empiricists, but Reagan himself was not. He was animated not by Fact but by Belief. (Reagan unconsciously seconded this judgment at the 1988 Republican convention when, botching a quote from John Adams, he declared, "Facts are stupid things.") Blumenthal's boss has very little in common with Reagan and, if anything, wears his beliefs too lightly. But somewhere along the way, he may have absorbed Reagan's lesson that while Americans like to gather Facts, the power Facts have to settle important questions is vastly overrated.

Timothy Noah is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

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