Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Death of Princess Diana
When the world exhibits as much interest in an event as it has the tragic death of Princess Diana, I take it to mean the world electorate sees something in the event that warrants our understanding and provides a lesson. Throughout the O.J. Simpson trial or the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, our own people massed around their television sets for national happenings that I pondered in this light: What are the people trying to tell us? They want us to learn something from what we see here? They know their political leaders are failing them somehow, and that if they only massed the weight of their ordinary lives sufficiently, the message might get through. With O.J. and Justice Thomas, and with the Million Man March, there is an appeal from the masses, I think, for us to find a way to solve the race problem in America and in the world, and I've written elsewhere about the meanings I thought should be extracted from those events.
Last Friday, August 29, John F. Burns of The New York Times wrote a dispatch from Kabul about how the Islamic fundamentalist government of Afghanistan is maintaining Sharia — the ancient social and penal code of Islam — among the population ("Sex and the Afghan Woman: Islam's Straitjacket"). He interviewed the man in charge, whom he described as a cheerful fellow with a big laugh, but who spoke clinically in justifying the cultural police, who ride around the capital's streets looking for women whose garb does not cover their ankles. They are reprimanded, even punished by whipping. The most striking account, though, was about a couple who were publicly stoned to death after having been found guilty of adultery. When Burns pressed the official on the justification for this act, the official told him about how successful it was: "Just two people, that's all, and we ended adultery in Kandahar forever," he said. "Even 100,000 police could not have the effect that we achieved with one punishment of this kind."
The crash in Paris took the lives of Princess Diana and two others, and it has had me wondering if it will cause the world to be any different as a result. Somehow, like the stoning in Kabul, it may be as distinctively horrifying as a cause of death to make us see it has to do with the concept of fundamental standards. If her death had been routine, via a storm at sea, an airplane crash, or an auto crash on an icy road, it would not have had the same impact as it did with the paparazzi essentially driving them to their deaths. Perhaps because I spent most of my life as a journalist, either in training or as a working journalist, it occurred to me that the public's fascination with the crash really does have to do with standards of journalism. I note Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times in angry denunciation of the paparazzi, and The Wall Street Journal in its lead editorial yesterday, "From OJ. to Diana," comes closer to the truth when it blames Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather and television news for reducing human tragedy to "cheap melodrama and the human comedy to slapstick. Despite some 50 years of daily effort, television news, at least in this country, seems to have rolled steadily downhill to its current resting place — a lukewarm muck of false sentiment and bathos."
But as I read the Wall Street Journal editorial, I thought of the stoning in Kabul, and how Jesus dealt with a crowd about to stone a young woman who had committed adultery: Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. The standards of American journalism are not made by the paparazzi and the National Enquirer, or by Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather, but by the leaders of all our most important news media — beginning with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, back on August 12, Robert L. Bartley of The Wall Street Journal wrote a signed column in denunciation of Vanity Fair, which had published a lengthy article on Dow Jones Publisher Pater Kann and his wife Karen Elliot House, much of it sleazy, unsourced gossip and much of it incorrect. This is a version of verbal paparazzi sanctioned by the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter. I e-mailed Bartley: I was happy to see your column yesterday. It really is time to shore up journalistic standards after 30 years of devaluations. Serious journalists should not be permitted to say I wrote that Jones did so and so because I read it in the New York Post or Daily News.
Alas, the highest standards of journalism in our time had been upheld by The Wall Street Journal itself, but they devalued bigtime when the news editors, Norman Pearlstine and James B. Stewart, allowed themselves to be carried away with paparazzi dreams of glory in sending Michael Milken to federal prison. Stewart's book Den of Thieves, which made him a wealthy man and got him an office at The New Yorker, is about his conquest of Milken and is truly stuck in the muck and mire, much of it composed in his head out of his own imaginings.
When I think of how tough editors were when I was a young reporter, how much checking and sourcing I had to do before I could get anything seamy into print, it is a wonder how the American people have any confidence left in the news media, print or electronic. In 1987, without any prompting, I began an annual critique of the media, the MediaGuide, which attempted to at least celebrate the best in American journalism, as a way of rebuilding standards that had been devalued to a vanishing point. The financial burden of the project finally became too great for me to bear, and I sold it for $1 to Steve Forbes and his empire. It became the ForbesMediaCritic, and finally last year he too had to fold it. Sad to say, the efforts had no noticeable effect on standards of reporting or commentary. Even the editor of the National Enquirer reports that what he found acceptable in the paparazzi, he now finds unacceptable in the stalkerazzi.
It may be that standards of any kind cannot be repaired until the masses want them repaired and demand it. Their shouts have to be correctly interpreted by those handful of men and women at the top who have been given the historic charge of maintaining standards ~ in any walk of life. The most important place to start for the editors of the major newspapers is by a critical examination of their own standards, and how much they have been allowed to slide these past 30 or 40 years, perhaps marked in history by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. These events connecting the crash of Camelot and the death of a story-book princess may teach us something important — something we have to know.
(To be continued.)
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