Impeach Pit

America isn't taking impeachment that seriously. CBS News barely broke into a football game on Saturday to tell the story. At times, the network split the screen into two boxes. One showed Congress. The other stuck with pro football.

The supposedly solemn impeachment was barely treated with supposed solemnity even by those who were impeaching President Bill Clinton. The Democrats rushed from the chamber for a quickie "time-out-rage." The GOP milled around like a bunch of confused ducks.

The electronic media can whip stories at the audience with great speed, but this week's events -- impeachment, Iraq and political sexcapades -- overwhelmed TV pundits and reporters. To turn William Blake on his head, the road to excess led to the palace of excess. Newspapers analyzed the news flood with a more active intellect. The Sunday, Dec. 20, New York Times had many excellent stories. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasn't nearly as chunky, but it was adequate. I liked the P-D's big "IMPEACHED" headline, too. Nothing like cutting to the chase, is there?

The fact that pictures alone weren't worth a thousand-or-so words isn't surprising. Network news staffs have been pared to the bone over this decade. It was impossible for TV to do justice to one story (say, Iraq), let alone three.

You'd think that a prominent media critic like the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz would have more on his plate than the least of those stories (Speaker-elect Bob Livingston's petulant resignation), but his Sunday column started with and dwelled upon one hilariously obvious fact: "When Larry Flynt can use sexual disclosures to bring down the incoming House speaker on the day the president is impeached for lying about sex," writes Kurtz, "something has obviously changed in the media and political culture."

You're kidding, Howard. Did you just get that memo? It's been something of a theme this year.

For his part, Flynt trotted out the same excuse that David Talbot, editor of the online magazine Salon (www.salonmagazine.com), used to defend his publication's decision to publish a story about House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's swinging days. Flynt told Kurtz that "desperate times deserve desperate actions," echoing Talbot's Sept. 19 editorial defending his story because "ugly times call for ugly tactics."

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for spray-painting the whited sepulchres using sex to impeach Clinton. That's what journalism (think Mencken here) is all about. But there's a danger in using words like "desperate" and "ugly" to describe your work. The danger? It's not the omnipresent "spin." By using those words, you know you've stepped over a line of fairness or balance or simple relevance. They're "covering your ass" words. Good journalism is never "desperate" or "ugly." I don't think it's any accident that Salon hasn't been nearly as interesting since Talbot wrote the word "ugly," and I thought that the Hyde story was legitimate in light of the hearings that the congressman was about to conduct.

In my reading and Web-surfing over the past days, I did find better words, and better journalism, about these events. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a piece that I found on the Guardian's Web site (www. guardian.co.uk), laying out the familiar pattern of what she calls "bimbo bombings" by Clinton. "For at least a year now," Ehrenreich writes, "a perfectly impeachable 'high crime and misdemeanor' has been staring us in the face: Clinton's capricious use of US military power to upgrade his image from molester of office help to Commander-in-Chief."

Equally snippy was an article in the Sunday edition of the Guardian's sister paper, the Observer, by Shyam Bhatia, titled "Arab Fury as Ramadan 'Desecrated.'" (It's at the same Web address.) Bhatia caps an excellent look at a mostly ignored perspective on the bombing by quoting chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat on Operation Desert Fox.

"We have foxes in the Middle East," Erakat tells the Observer. "What we all need and lack is peace."

FIVE ALIVE: Thanks to the news staff at KSDK for their candor and warmth during my visit for this week's RFT feature story "Fast Forward." I learned a lot, not the least of which being that the KSDK army definitely marches on its stomach.

PICK 'EM: The Byrne brothers' college-bowl picks against the spread remain on the RFT's Web page (www.rftstl.com) for one more week. Follow along as we wage our annual war on Las Vegas by clicking on the "Media" section of the site.

E-mail media tips and quips to Richard Byrne at byrne@rftstl.com.

 
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