The author of an article I recently read took up the task of listing the twenty worst news stories of 1975. Despite the evidence produced it was a very amusing business, as indeed, any post-mortem of such atrocious fare would have to be to make it palatable. The passage of time serves the purpose of making almost any contrived indecency humorous and several of these specimens nearly shook my ribcage loose. Still, patting my tummy once the last bellylaugh had died away, I was left wondering about the general state of the profession that had delivered such dreadful offerings with a straight face.
The unhappy conclusion of this rumination was that the biographers of this all-star team of journalistic Mai Lais had had a very easy time of it. Choosing the twenty worst news stories of 1975 is an exercise equal to choosing the twenty worst politicians, the twenty most vapid and ill-informed actors (all of whom are being courted to rhapsodize on the merits of their favorite presidential candidate) or the twenty worst fast-food chains in America. Asked to nominate the rogue’s gallery in any of these categories the critic could hardly do badly. Any disagreement would be based on subjective qualities, such as the dissenter’s ability to battle nausea.
Programmed to appeal to the tastes of the great mass of human kohlrabi it is hardly surprising that politicians, actors and the purveyors of bicentennial burgers regularly fulfill their manifest destinies of mediocrity. The press, if generally as bad as the culture it shills, need not be awful and in certain times past was actually better than it should have been.
As with any clearly prejudiced article, concessions are in order to give this an aura of fairness. First of all, my attention is directed specifically towards the national press. The task of assessing local papers would be monumental, which is to say, boring, as the overwhelming majority are completely at the mercies of the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Sifting through such buffooneries would drive the near-intelligent to Time Magazine for cerebral stimulation, which is the point of this protest. Not only does most national circulation result from those attempting to exchange local xenophobias for national ones, and thereby gain entrance to the intelligentsia, but like all top dogs the big dailies and weeklies pick the individual, intruder or mere pedestrian that all the pack barks at. Like the top dog it is the national press that I throw rocks at.
Secondly, it must be understood that in the United States democracy permits mass hysteria to pass for group consensus and to dictate standards of good taste. With the depletion of Watergate, as with any other natural resource once thought to be inexhaustible and to run as deeply under Washington as oil once did in Texas before price controls, the faucets had to be turned off slowly. As well cut the last few seconds of the Superbowl to begin airing Heidi, the switchboards would have lit up like a SAC radar screen during a military appropriations debate.
So it was probably necessary for us to learn that John Ehrlichman was growing a beard in New Mexico (something to do with the climate?) and Ron Ziegler was riding his Honda in San Clemente and every last one of them who could read and write was busy whacking out their own version of a novel that had not played very convincingly on television. I am willing to settle for what is possible and not denounce the habit of the press to do anything to excess that is worth doing at all, even though it began to read the way carny hucksters sound the last night the midway is open. Still, they could have kept the heat of tent revival oratory and slipped in a few quotes from even Chairman Mao and had it pass for the Gospel. The fundamentalist herd has equal respect for torchlight, snake-handling and the gift of foreign tongues. Given the resources they possess, even the National Enquirer, the arch-bishop of yellow journalism, would have turned, one supposes, newsprint white with envy. It’s not what you say but the way it is said: Thus:
“Vietnam Refugees Find American Dream at Minimum Wage.”
“Portuguese Descendents of Columbus Discover 20th Century.”
“CIA Admits Shellfish Poison Capable of Aerial Flight.”
“Indira Assures Womans’ Lib in India.”
And how about this for a circulation booster:
“United Fruit Contributions Have Honduras Whistling ‘Yes We Have No Bananas’.”
Tabloid journalism is not only possible it is kind of fun and with a little imagination the press could have actually sent their sales soaring. After all, any industry that attempts to sell both ideas and corporate produce to factory hands and college professors on each coast of the motherland simultaneously is not without a sense of humor. Yet instead of delving into these dark and troubled waters with a flourish they forgot that the basis of all great comedy is serious and ended up giving us farce by practicing the art of investigative journalism, on what?
The secret sex-life of John F. Kennedy. This is important stuff we are told as his “vigah,” before thought confined to touch-football, left the nation open to international blackmail. Clearly this is someone’s bad idea of a joke. Who can imagine a camera-toting enemy agent getting through the traffic-jam of FBI shutter-bugs to the scene of the accident? Had he snuck through while the Feds were busy steaming open our mail, what would have happened? Would we have been threatened with salacious photographs unless we ceased our efforts to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out? When this one becomes a movie I want Spiro to write the screenplay.
While this is as bogus a piece of history as Evel Knievel’s dive into Snake Canyon, the spectre of blackmail is all too real in one sense. Like Spiro’s forthcoming novel, I, for one, would pay a pretty penny to be spared the details Ms. Exner makes ready to reveal. Their keyhole peek shows have all the sense of drama of the monthly sessions my grandparents creak through and still the press ponders the weighty words of Frank Sinatra’s pals and passes their babble on, unadulterated, no less.
The year of the culpable cadaver is born. The autopsy of a dead president begins with a surgical swipe at his zipper and lesser ex-mortals can expect to fare no better. Having faced the possibility of libel suits throughout Watergate equal to the national debt, networks whose existence hung by a thread of tape sit dull-eyed and insensate, dreaming, no doubt, of the days when the worst fit of journalistic D.T.’s sent the White House shredders humming overtime. If the living have begun learning to cover their spoor then there is still that whole other class who childishly believed that dying uncaught was tantamount to getting away with it.
Taking the lead, Jack Anderson spent most of the year whaling the tar out of old J. Edgar’s stiff carcass. Five years ago the whole press corps was ignoring the outrages visited upon the New Left and pushing the Crimebuster’s swing as he gamboled through the playgrounds of senility. Today they insinuate that he was playing doctor with his right-hand man.
In a somewhat bolder fashion Generalissimo Franco was still living, albeit by machine, when the press began throwing dirt upon his chest. In a country where flicking on a lightbulb is thought to require divine intervention it’s not likely that his lawyers have a map with the United States on it. Hidden safely off the edge of the world our press thumbed its nose at him thirty-five years too late.
Upon learning in the papers that the general had died the CIA and FBI were so startled that they were hauled before investigative committees before the contents of the files they have on everyone in Washington could be brought to bear. Once before the spotlight they blinked like so many moles and confessed that anyone even remotely responsible for any act conceivably illegal or just plain not nice had passed to the Omaha field office in the sky. “The good die young” is a phrase rendered inoperative and our syndicated columnists were greatly relieved.
Facing the volcanic banalities of a presidential election during the 200th birthday, things can only get worse. Denouncing the public’s unwholesome fascination with the dead at one moment, they will whoop it up the next for our present tribe of right honorables, ignoring the fact that age alone nominates the majority for soon-to-be-dearly-departed status. It used to be that the surest way for our world figures to insure their place in history was to give up the ghost before anyone caught on to them. Dying today is considered equivalent to pleading nolo contendere and the greatest disservice the media may have performed this past year was to close off this once respectable avenue to those who lead us.