The Hefner Effect and Serious Journalism

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The bread-and-circuses journalistic spectacles of the 1990s began with Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill. The tradition proceeded through violent variations such as Waco, Oklahoma City, and Columbine; through the deaths-in-their-golden-prime of Diana and John Jr., and through that masterpiece of sexual, interracial, and criminal drama, the O.J. Simpson case.

Elian Gonzalez gave good value in the category of cute kids with international poignancy. Clinton/Lewinsky, with Ken Starr ably pouring on the prurience and Republicans contributing the incompetent moralism, competed with O.J. for title of overall best — in the way that Hamlet and Lear may vie in people's minds for greatest Shakespeare play.

Now, a decade later, we make do with Chandra Levy/Gary Condit — not a bad production, with elements of Sex in the City fused to the Perils of Pauline. The villain looks like Jack Lord playing Skeletor. The mystery of Chandra's disappearance, once good for voluble dinner table speculation, is getting a little threadbare for want of developments.

No one enjoys these entertainments more than the business offices of the big media. What the stories have in common, from a journalistic point of view, is that they are (almost all of them) incredibly cheap to cover. For Elian Gonzalez, for example, all that a media giant needed for seven days a week, twenty four hours a day on air was a couple of sound people and a van and a camera and a producer and an on-camera correspondent to stand outside the Miami relatives' house and yak solemnly about how Elian came out this morning to play on the jungle gym. Close the bureaus in Rome, Moscow, Paris, and Tokyo. All you need to cover these stories is a few laptops and some rooms at the Holiday Inn.

Historically, what the stories represent is the evolving merger of journalism and entertainment; the retreat of corporate media owners not only from the larger, serious responsibilities of journalism but even from a notion of what those responsibilities might be.

This is an old story that needs no belaboring. What I mean to get at — beyond the devastations caused to journalism by cut-budget venality on the owners' side and a gradual moronization of the audience on the receiving end — is a dawning intuition among some Americans (not all of them conspiratorial anti-globalization leftists) that these circuses may represent a misdirection, to use the magicians' phrase: a massive diversion.

Such an intuition arrives naturally in a shaky economy. There is more inclination now than, say, a year ago, to think that gaudy but irrelevant stories (Levy/Condit, e.g.) may mask the deeper and more important news. A shadow of paranoia impinges: Can it be that the corporate owners of the media (an ownership remote from the traditions of journalism) have an interest, beyond the charming profits that come from high ratings, in corrupting the investigative functions of journalism and diverting its resources to sensational but essentially insignificant stories? One hears this more and more. Dan Rather made a small gesture toward the older, solider traditions of journalism when he declined to harp on the Chandra Levy/Gary Condit story on his CBS Evening News.

The job of journalism is, as the columnist Richard Reeves has said, is to give people the news they need to keep their freedoms. People need to know what threatens them; need to know the dangers. In war or depression, people do not pay so much attention to a story like Condit/Levy. They want to know whether they are in danger of being defeated by their enemy, and what they can do to stop it.

But most Americans have been living for quite a while in a time of peace and prosperity. That affects the quality of the journalism they get, and tends to promote what might be called the Hefner Delusion.

Hugh Hefner, the Socrates of what he called "the Playboy Philosophy," was one of the sillier figures of the 20th century. His philosophy, formulated in Woo Grotto and silk smoking jacket with a thousand Playmates, taught the profound significance and value of his Chicago-based hedonism and the creamy topless lubricities that he published.

All those foldout bunnies represented something of the same diversion that we see in the diversionary journalistic spectacles of the last ten years. The real purpose of sex is not to put a grin on Hefner's goofy face, but to accomplish the relentless ongoing business of genetic reproduction. And, one suspects, the real story of what's going on in America has nothing to do with Skeletor and the missing intern.