Reporters all over Washington and New York were angry. They wailed, they moaned, they gnashed their teeth. They railed against the poisons of partisanship and how partisan interests were outweighing the national interest. This means only one thing. Conservatives had won something.
The U.S. Senate had voted down the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the clearest defeat of a liberal proposal since Clinton's second term began.The news magazines fancifully imagined that this was horrendous political news for the Republicans and Bill Clinton. Time's headline was "Mutually Assured Destruction," while U.S. News & World Report echoed "A Mutually Assured Destruction."
Predictably, journalists began by bashing the Republicans for their obsessive hatred of Clinton, that tired old spin they use every time Republicans stand on principle. But they also bashed Clinton for not working hard enough to sell Senate moderates and the public on the treaty. Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein exemplified the mood: "Atlanta used to style itself [as] the city that was too busy working to hate. Washington has become the city too busy hating to work."
Before we all get vertigo from the media's lofty perch on Mount Olympus, let's underline two overwhelming oversights in all this media ranting and raving about all those sullied solons:
First, if the media cared so darn much, where were they? Don't get me wrong. I don't want to see three network newscasts full of test-ban propaganda. But it's hypocritical for all of these reporters to go on chat shows and complain about how Clinton didn't take the time to sell this treaty to the public when these very same chat-meisters - the so-called political experts - didn't get to the story until days before it was mercifully put to sleep.
The serial silliness of network political coverage was underlined by Matt Lauer and Tim Russert discussing the treaty defeat the next morning on NBC's "Today." Lauer mourned: "There has been bad blood between the President and Republicans in Congress for a long time, certainly since the impeachment hearings, probably before that. But Tim, it seems as though even the appearance of civility between these groups is now gone out the window." Russert replied: "Absolutely. It's poisonous down here. It is very, very ugly."
No one asked how many interviews "Today" had aired debating the test-ban treaty. Simple. None. They were too busy devoting entire half-hours to more important things, like the eternally unresolved JonBenet Ramsey murder case. Or "Today" viewers could have learned about the Harry Potter book craze or whether baby-walkers cause more harm than good.
In fact, you wouldn't run out of the fingers on one hand counting the morning-show interview segments in the last couple of years on the treaties on carbon-dioxide emissions, on a ban on land mines, on the establishment of a world criminal court, on chemical and biological weapons. None of these noxious treaties has gotten the time of day - yet journalists still feel justified to point their fingers at everyone else.
"In-depth political coverage" is now defined as the networks just parachuting in after the vote and decrying everyone involved like a bunch of clucking kindergarten hall monitors. Don't bore the audience with concepts like verifiability or nonproliferation policy. Just compare the whole debate to food fights and ruined play dates.
Second, if the world is growing more dangerous, whose fault is that? Most journalists blame the Republicans, such as U.S. News owner Mort Zuckerman, whose back-page column claimed the Republican rejection vote "borders on xenophobia" and warned, "Last week, this great country became Little America, and the world became a more dangerous place."
At Clinton's tantrum-filled press conference after he lost, reporters let Clinton claim Republicans damaged nonproliferation efforts in answering seven questions on the test-ban treaty. Not one of those reporters noted how it might be curious for Clinton to accuse others of endangering world security when Chinese espionage mushroomed on Clinton's watch, and China is a major proliferator to rogue nations like Iran and Libya.
Not one could cite, as Sen. Jesse Helms did effectively in the Wall Street Journal, that the Clinton administration has looked the other way as Russia aided Iran's and Iraq's attempts to build weapons of mass destruction. Or that the Clinton team has loosened export controls on supercomputers that will make it easier for Russia and China to test nuclear weapons without violating a test ban.
In the end, not every reporter gave Clinton a political thumbs-down. On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert suggested to David Broder: "Every time the Republicans seem to engage the President, whether it's the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, tobacco, campaign finance, government shutdown, fairly or unfairly, the President seems to win politically with his big megaphone." Broder replied, "No question about it."
But Clinton and his "big megaphone" lost this one. The winners shouldn't let the media sniping change that fact.