The Post-Monica Era

by Jonathan Schell

The Nation magazine, April 27, 1998


Let us assume for a moment that the dismissal of Paula Jones's lawsuit against President Clinton for sexual misconduct is not overturned on appeal and, further, that the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which arose as part of the Jones case, follows it into oblivion. In that case, we'll be entering the Post-Monica Era. A great vacuum will open before us. What will fill it? What will we read? What will we watch on television? What will we become as a country?

Paula and Monica, we should admit, filled a need. It's not easy, though, to figure out exactly what the need has been, or for that matter just whose need it has been. The person on the street, we heard on all sides, was "relieved" that the ballooning scandal had been punctured. For instance, in a story in The Washington Post headlined "For Many Across America, A Welcome Piece of News" a shoe salesman in Chicago was quoted saying, "Does this mean that I never, ever have to hear Paula Jones's name again?" Another Chicagoan opined, "Folks here don't care about that foolishness." He added that only "politicians and lawyers and the media in Washington, D.C.," were interested in the matter. These reports are fully consistent with other signs of public opinion, including the remarkable fact that at the peak of the scandal Clinton's approval ratings as President shot up ten to fifteen points. It's impossible not to conclude that, whatever the public thinks of Clinton's alleged acts, it sided with him and against special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and others pursuing charges. To put it more accurately, perhaps, most people turned out to dislike the investigations more than they disliked the conduct that gave rise to them.

This record, however, presents with a puzzle. If the folks around the country really weren't interested in the foolishness, and now are happy that it's disappearing from the news, why, for several months, were they ravenously gobbling up its every silly detail? It's no secret that the news media (and especially television) these days stay with a story only as long as the public does- as long as the ratings hold up. If the public had wanted to hear more about the massacres in Kosovo, then it would have been given more about the massacres in Kosovo. If it had wanted to hear about the C.I.A.'s connivance with drug smugglers in Central America, or NATO expansion, or global warming, or the economic woes of Asia, or the biotech revolution, it would have been given more about those things. It won't do, in other words, to suggest that a wicked press has been forcing a sordid tale upon a virtuous, offended public. The interaction between press and public is more complicated than that.

Any attempt at understanding must begin with the public's current attitude toward politics, which lies somewhere between the apolitical and the anti-political - between boredom and disgust. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that more than 52 percent of the public has never heard of Senate majority leader Trent Lott-which tells us more about political attitudes than any number of polls measuring people's "approval" of this or that politician or branch of government. There are several reasons for this lack of interest, the most obvious the simple fact that the country is prosperous and at peace. If these agreeable circumstances are not the stuff of many headlines, the explanation is the one Zsa Zsa Gabor gave for her partiality to limousines: "A limousine is not an acquired taste-you get used to it immediately." Discomfort, misery and catastrophe are what send people into the streets. It's a fallacy to which politicians and pundits are much given that interest in politics must always remain at a constant level. That interest quite naturally ebbs and flows according to circumstances and events. Just now, we are at an ebb.

Another, more worrisome reason for the public's disengagement from politics is structural. If it ever was true, as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, that all politics is local, it no longer is. Politics, once an activity rooted in neighborhoods, unions, wards and civic associations, has migrated to television-the almost exclusive battleground of political campaigns. (Even unions, when they want to flex their political muscle, turn to TV advertising.) For ordinary citizens, politics has become mainly a spectator sport. It's amazingly easy to live in the United States today without giving a thought to public affairs. You can drop out of the whole business as easily as you can hit another channel on the remote. And when the political show is dull, people drop out in droves.

In an earlier time, when the structures of politics were interwoven with daily life, a simple adjustment to a period of comparative calm like ours might have bean possible: People would turn a little more to their personal affairs; voting might decline a little; newspaper circulation might drop off a bit. In our Information Age, however, this cannot be tolerated. The gigantic proliferation of news media that has taken place in the last quarter-century or so forbids it. Today's prototypical purveyor of news is no longer the legendary seedy fellow with a pencil in his fedora and a hunch where to find a story. He or she is more likely a television anchor with a multimillion-dollar salary and live satellite hookups all over the world-or perhaps a talk-show host roaming a heavily cued television audience with a cordless mike. Today, the media are big business and cannot afford a lull. This beast must be fed, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The hundreds of cable channels must be provisioned continuously. There must be a constant stream of material to send up to the satellites and back down again to our screen-addicted world. For this immense industry, stories like the Clarence Thomas hearings, the O.J. trial, the death of Lady Diana or the Jones-Lewinsky scandal are like rainfall in a desert.

Each obeys the age-old formula for titillating material: a rich dish of illicit sex and other mischief is served up with a thin sauce of "serious" concerns (the "character issue," and so forth). These stories are to the media business what a blockbuster movie is to a studio-every one a Titanic. They are lightly disguised circuses pitched in our empty public square, permitting the illusion, in an apolitical age, that politics goes on.

Neither the media's gargantuan financial need for appetizing stories nor the public's indifference to authentic political affairs shows any sign of ending soon. What, then, is likely to fill the vacuum of the looming Post-Monica Era? Expect more scandalous stories of low importance but high entertainment value- stories that, while they last, are devoured by the public but, when they end, are expelled from memory with a sigh of relief.


Media Control and Propaganda