The Media Bristles at Bristol

One of the great setups for humor in theater, or for delivering zingers in debate, is to say something by denying you would ever say that thing.  Jackie Mason does a lot of that in his routines.  It goes something like this:  “Most people who go to the opera don’t understand it, don’t appreciate it, don’t enjoy it.  They go just to be seen as sophisticated… but I don’t like to say bad things about people.”  The last, patently insincere, disclaimer is what gets the biggest laugh.

Hey, I am not above milking that sort of gag myself.  Try this:  “Only the courtliness of my upbringing restrains me from calling Hillary Clinton a conniving, vengeful manipulator.  Instead I will merely note that the facts are often in sharp variance with her statements.”

What I have never seen until this week is the utilization of this technique in actual news features.  The news, we are told, is that there is some news concerning a certain teenage pregnancy, but that most people are opposed to this news being reported.  What an amazing piece of information!  Who would believe that such a broad consensus exists about what qualifies as a legitimate subject for discussion?  Now that is news!

One set of such stories in both print media and television focused on the citizens of Wasilla, Alaska.  Reporters reported the amazing report that the people of Wasilla thought this was not valid news.  The new Mayor of Wasilla called a press conference, Sarah Palin’s former neighbors were interviewed, a non-relative of her daughter’s boyfriend whose last name is also Johnston was questioned, and they all agreed that this is not a story.  The story itself, the one about how no locals think it is a story, ran to a few thousand words and required three-minute on-the-scene TV segments.

Another approach followed in numerous features was to stop both Democrat and Republican voters in the streets of Middle America to see if they thought this should be covered.  Without exception — not ‘virtually’ without exception, I’m talking 100% — they declared it a private matter.  Off limits, they cried.  None of our business, they chimed.  Off the table, they agreed.  Out of bounds, they insisted.  Amazingly, voters from both parties are unanimous in the view that this is not a story.  Now back to you, Mr. Anchor.

There was a third category of this loud coverage of how important it is not to cover this, and it focused on Barack Obama.  Mister Obama is angry, they conveyed excitedly, he refuses to participate in this non-coverage of the non-controversy.  Cut to sound-bite of Mister O irascibly demanding that this subject matter be banned from “our politics.”  See Obama run.  See how noble he is.  See how he refuses to attack Sarah Palin.  Or her daughter.  Her daughter named Bristol.  Bristol, who is only 17.  Only 17 and already pregnant.  Which is none of our business, says Obama.  Back to you, Ms. Anchorette.

This thin fig leaf covers nothing while they cover everything.  The same high-minded journalists who were too finicky to traffic in Senator Edwards’ impropriety, the same big-hearted journalists who were too sensitive to poke around in Chelsea Clinton’s teenage schedule, are now retailing Sarah Palin’s daughter’s discomfiture in the public square — well, covering the fact that everyone prefers that it not be covered, but being sure to include all the details.

This is a shameful episode in the history of the American news industry, although the guilty parties will avoid condemnation for some time, simply because they control the packaging of our short-term history.  We have not given up hope that some honest historians with fair minds and open eyes will emerge at some point to make balanced judgments about such things.  In the course of human events, bad political bands do occasionally get dissolved, or so I am told.