Remember the television episode--was it "Star Trek"?--in which the people on a certain Earth-like planet are orderly and civilized until a large gong goes off. Then they drop all restrictions and standards and go briefly, thrillingly wild. The period of insanity seemed to serve as a pressure-relief gauge, sustaining them through long, dull periods of normality. Here on Earth as the pace of life gathers, the press may be performing that function. Media have lately been providing us with stories that serve to mesmerize and release the entire wired population. One difference is that the wilding sessions get wilder each time the gong sounds. The stories get ever larger, ever more amazing. Think back through the mists of time: John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson, Princess Di, Monica Lewinsky. Each time we think, "How can they top that?" Each time they do.
And is there a pattern within the pattern? Each story, at least since O.J., has a revelatory first stage. Then comes a slow day, when the factual fuel threatens to burn low and the story gets juiced with a media-on-the-media booster shot. Or so it seems in the Monica Lewinsky saga, that tale of our times.
Roll down my radio dial: Here's Don Imus interviewing NBC White House correspondents David Bloom or Claire Shipman on where they think the Monica saga goes next; here's Newsweek's Jonathan Alter on WABC pitching the latest from Michael Isikoff's hot computer. Here on my lawn is The New York Times with 46 inches on Ken Starr's lack of PR skill, his temporary inability to shape the saga as it morphs through the news cycles. Here on my newsstand is Esquire, with David Brock apologizing to Bill Clinton for his January 1994 piece in The American Spectator, the one that helped set the whole Paula/Monica/Linda mess in motion. Here's CNN and ABC (and CJR) on the media's performance re: Monica--explaining, examining, lamenting. News to mega-news to meta-news--media on media--until finally, presumably, the gong sounds again and we resume our orderly lives, secretly yearning for the next big thing.
We all have a pretty good time, I guess. Who wants to read about welfare reform or education or the drug war or education or health care or tax debates, or even big scary asteroids, when this stuff is available? What's the downside? (Aside from helping erode the presidency, that is, or helping turn political discourse into a vicious game of "gotcha.") As a professional press critic--one who firmly belives in holding the press to high standards by way of dissecting it, encouraging it, criticizing it, CAT-scanning it, talking and writing and thinking about it--I am nonetheless worrying aloud here about the meta-media thing. O.J., Diana, Monica: These are, of course, all huge and legitimate stories. But after they get rolling, the press can get too self-referential, too self-contained, too wrapped up in its own reality for its mental health. Or ours.
There are always journalists on TV talking to other journalists about the latest journalism, and it's usually fine. But there does seem to be an awful lot of it lately. A great deal of the heated air needed to keep the Monica balloon aloft is supplied by journalists--or, rather, "media types." We are getting an odd mix of journalists and others thrown together in strange combinations, strange places--Matt Drudge on "Meet the Press," Michael Isikoff on David Letterman, former presidential advisers like Dick Morris on WABC or George Stephanopoulos on Sunday with Sam and Cokie. We have straight reporters mixed with commentators mixed with those (like Sam and Cokie) who allegedly do both. And we have them all mixed with people who get some kind of commentary label but are clearly partisan. And we have entertainers. Here is Imus (also on MSNBC) asking NBC's Jim Miklaszewski if he plans to investigate whether Paul Begala murdered James MacDougal. Distinctions between media roles can melt a bit under the TV lights. From the other side of the TV screen, this begins to sound like one big Washington cocktail party.
And as these media folk talk--and talk--to each other, when does the citizen start to feel left out? We expect news from journalists. We can get irritated when it seems that the journalists tell us--or tell us by way of telling each other--what to make of this news, how much weight to give it. When Sam Donaldson tells us--this back in January--that he thinks President Clinton might be out of a job before the end of the week, is this helpful? Once the polls started coming out, it became clear that the reality on Sam's side of the screen did not always match that on ours. (Sam might have spent a couple hours listening to country music lyrics to gain a clearer understanding of exactly how shocked Americans are by charges of marital infidelity and its attendant lies.) Nor was Donaldson the only one who seemed to tell us about consequences before we'd even sorted out the facts. Whose job is it, ultimately, to fire a president, to decide whether a scandal has that kind of solemn weight?
Meta-media's ultimate danger is a kind of separation from reality. If it gets too self-referential, the press and the faux-press are in some danger of floating off in a big media balloon. Wen Stephenson put it this way in The Atlantic Monthly's online edition: "We've reached a point where more and more often the media, rather than being merely the vehicles of our stories about the world, are the story. No longer just another beat (belonging to the old-fashioned press critic), the media are now perceived by those who work in them as something larger: a context--perhaps The Context--in which everything happens."1
Can't be healthy. Ultimately, it could be crazy. I wasn't wild about Wag the Dog, but one scene was brilliant, the one in which Robert DeNiro persuades the man from the CIA that DiNiro's phony war had a certain reality that it was in the agent's interest to recognize. "What do you mean it didn't happen?" DeNiro says. "It was on TV." But it didn't happen.