Substituting gossip for news

Published 3:30 pm Monday, December 29, 2008

Although you’ll never see celebrity journalists discussing it on television, one reason the country’s in such terrible shape is the media’s substitution of political “infotainment” for news. It’s cheaper to feature chatter by Washington insider pundits than, say, to keep a functioning news bureau working in Baghdad or Beijing.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest for allegedly trying to auction off President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat started a veritable avalanche of idle gossip, witless speculation and downright character assassination we haven’t seen since — well, since “Whitewater,” the most elaborate shaggy-dog story in U.S. history. On cable television, they were partying like it was 1998.

It’s not as if there’s nothing serious to talk about. Recently, we’ve seen Republican senators, mainly from Southern states with heavily subsidized foreign auto factories, scuttle the Bush administration’s bailout of U.S. car manufacturers purely to stick it to the unions. Who do these guys represent, Tennessee or Nissan? Alabama or Volkswagen? We’re talking 3 million American jobs here, as the economy spirals frighteningly downward.

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In New York, the single biggest financial fraud in world history went down. Bernard L. Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme cost investors as savvy as Mort Zuckerman and Steven Spielberg upward of $50 billion. How’d he get away with it for so long?

In Washington, the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report blaming high-ranking Bush administration officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for appalling human rights violations against detainees in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Low-level sadists prosecuted at Abu Ghraib actually were following orders. The report’s findings were unanimous. Whatever is to be done?

Could these events have motivated the Iraqi reporter with the suspiciously strong throwing arm who made himself a folk hero throughout the Arab world by pegging his shoes at President Bush’s head? A big-league second baseman couldn’t have been more on target. Will Iraq ever become a U.S. ally as conservatives claim?

None of those tedious subjects, however, stimulated anything like the punditocracy’s gleeful response to the Blagojevich bust.

Granted, the Illinois scandal has comic appeal. According to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the publicity-shy prosecutor who turns up so regularly on national television, Blagojevich even tried to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital, for heaven’s sake.

As a New Jersey native married to a woman born in Louisiana, I can’t pretend to be shocked by anything apart from Blago’s astonishing stupidity. A friend who knew him when they were young prosecutors together characterizes Blagojevich as the kind of public servant who’d dismiss domestic violence charges simply because it was Friday afternoon. Everybody in Chicago knew the fool was under FBI investigation.

He’s like one of those guys who sticks up a bank wearing a work shirt with his name embroidered on it. If convicted, Blagojevich will join his predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan, in prison for essentially the same crime — peddling government services to the highest bidder.

Granted, the mention of Obama was bound to set off Republican political operatives desperate to cut into his stratospheric approval ratings. Even though that mention consisted of Blagojevich’s tape-recorded obscenities in reaction to Obama’s infuriating refusal to dispense payola.

According to the federal indictment, “Blagojevich said that the consultants are telling him that he has to ‘suck it up’ for two years and do nothing and give this ‘mother(bleeper)’ his senator. ‘(Bleep) him. For nothing? (Bleep) him.’”

Fitzgerald made it clear that neither Obama nor anybody on his staff is under suspicion.

Media response to this disappointing news has been a lot like Blagojevich’s, albeit without the bleeps. Obama’s clean? Well, what about the “gathering shadows?” He’s appalled? So how come it took him 24 whole hours to call for Blagojevich’s resignation?

According to The New York Times, “accusations of naked greed and brazen influence-peddling have raised questions from some about the political culture in which the president-elect began his career.” Notice the passive voice. The Times isn’t asking — only “some.”

On MSNBC, veteran scandalmonger Michael Isikoff spoke darkly of “a web of interconnections between the Blagojevich’s world and Obama’s world.” Even Obama-friendly pundits such as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson essentially demanded that Obama prove a negative, by responding immediately to questions he couldn’t possibly know the answers to.

My favorite, however, had to be the Post’s ubiquitous Dana Milbank. Reacting on CNN to the disappointing news that Fitzgerald has asked Obama to delay releasing a list of staffers who’d discussed the coveted Senate seat, Milbank complained that the president-elect was trying to bore Americans to death by nominating obscure nobodies to posts like Secretary of Energy.

The nobody in question would be professor Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate in physics. Is there any wonder the United States appears scarcely capable of governing itself?

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at