"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 July 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Echo Chamber


[when you have a hunch, a feeling]

George Chauncey should have seen

it coming, and mostly he did.

When it came, though, he

misunderstood the lesson. A

career academic, Chauncey

believed he was working in a

field that, as he explained in

the 3 July issue of The

Chronicle of Higher Education,

involved exploration of "the

malleability of the self and the

construction of social

categories." But what he was

really trying to do, of course,

was trick vulnerable kids into

turning gay, presumably so he

and his ilk could do dirty

things to them. Chauncey learned

this from an episode of 60

Minutes that focused on gay and

lesbian studies at, for example,

the University of Chicago, where

he is the chair of just such a

program. In the Chronicle, the

horrified scholar described

watching his own 70-minute

interview cut to 70 (not very

representative) seconds;

seeing his image and the image

of the reporter switched to mask

cuts and jumps in his answers;

and being "balanced" against,

among others, a SUNY trustee who

denounced "the degeneration of

an academic forum into a

platform for lesbian sex, for

public sadomasochism, for anal

sex, bisexuality, and



Chauncey took from all of this

the belief that, "however

unwittingly," those responsible

for the show were trying to

paint young adults as innocents,

unable to engage their teachers

in a critical way and at risk of

losing their underformed selves

to that much-dreaded queer

guile. In short, he argues, 60

Minutes was trying to

"infantilize" college students.

Which is true - except, we

suspect, for the "unwittingly"

part - but he misses a more

revealing truth.


An infant perceives life as

opposites: hungry and sated,

sleepy and restless, wet and

dry. Similarly, a consumer of

television news - or, more

simply, of news, packaged into

whichever of its conventions -

receives an image of life as

opposites, as a narrative in

which "both" sides of the story

are told. This is a fiction told

through different proscenia;

some theaters squeeze right and

left onto the same stage, while

others tailor their production

against the opinion of the

theater across the street,

offering balance by countering

an imbalance - that is, by

producing an equal and opposite

imbalance and calling it a

challenge to conventional

wisdom. And so we have Hannity and Colmes,

Buchanan and Kinsley, The American

Spectator, and Salon magazine; An entire

false narrative, emptied of

nuance and particularity,

steered into pairs of forced

meaning. Tonight on MSNBC: James Carville

debates Bob Barr over the Starr

investigation. (Ooh, I wonder

what they'll say!)


[but it's not a good one]

Except that it's hard to stop

that kind of habit once you've

got it going. A few things



Most important: Since there can

only be two sides, the news

first has to turn on issues that

reduce quickly and cleanly.

Something like the Helms-Burton

Act has too many players, too

many competing interests; if by

punishing communists you prevent

American businesses from making

money, which side is which? But,

OK, here's a good one:

Democratic president under

investigation. That gives us a

nice balance -



The problem is that the whole

thing caves in if the story is

muddied, so you've got to cook

things down a bit more. Browse

the news archives of an

especially tiresome example, and

see for yourself if you don't

detect a pattern: The far

right's desperate

counterattack. Disaster strikes

a Clinton-hating ideologue. Shy,

secretive, and of regal bearing,

a right-winger spends money to

influence politics. (Gasp!)

Turning the tables on Starr....


When a cop keeps bringing the

same few crooks in for booking,

night after night, don't you

start to wonder?


[how do you feel when it turns out your hunch was right?]

In something more like the real

world, the remarkable thing

about Bill Clinton is just how

much he seems to both damage

himself and surround himself

with people who damage him,

despite his obvious skill at

political maneuvering: Dick

Morris, bragging to a prostitute

about his relationship with the

president; the aforementioned

Carville, who doesn't seem to

have figured out that talking

like a gangster in public

doesn't really serve your cause;

Bob Bennett, whose only known

defense tactic is the


ploy; and Clinton's own hapless

alter ego, who uses terms like

"that woman" in front of half

the reporters on earth, despite

very clearly knowing better.

There's this entire bizarre feel

of grand guignol bubbling up out

of our nation's capital, a sense

that a whole culture is chewing

straight along toward swallowing

itself whole - and yet, in The

American Spectator, Democrats iz

bad; in Salon, venal

right-wingers are plotting and

scheming against a pure man who

just wants to make the country

better. Playing for a side,

Sidney Blumenthal Blasts Ken

Starr is a news story, while

Mike McCurry's remarkably odd

answers to a Chicago Tribune

reporter asking about the

management of White House

statements on the investigation

- a sloppy, weary slip from a

careful and seemingly decent man

- doesn't rate its own headline.

It's human, it's difficult, and

it's not in the script.


And if you have a script, there

has to be narrative, a story

that evolves in a smooth arc

toward a conclusive denouement.

The presence of too many

different interests, or too many

different ideas, always makes

this impossible: Player A wants

items 1, 2, and 3; Player B wants

items 1 and 4; Player C wants

item 2 but loses most of the

gains from item 2 if item 4

lands in its circle; Player

D.... In the end, a few players

win a lot, a few players lose

badly, and those in the middle

win and lose. But two sides is

clean, two sides means a winner

and a loser. It helps if a

simple issue can be found,

something not inherently

partisan - hell, not inherently

important. A sex scandal, for

example, is perfect.


[victorious for knowing, but sad about the bad reality being true?]

Problem is, forcing a narrative

onto actual events can be a bit

like forcing an adorable knit

cap onto a teenage boy: He'll

fight you, so you've got to be

prepared to keep on pushing. The

dramatic storytellers at Salon,

for instance, have called for or

reported the end of Starr's

investigation six times since

January: asking if it was "about

to end" on 27 January

(apparently not); wondering if

time was running out for Starr

on 5 March (nope); declaring

"Judgment day" for the entire

investigation as Paula Jones'

case ended on 2 April (not

really); reporting, under the

headline "Case Closing," on "one

of the last nails in the

independent counsel's coffin"

(not especially); calling for

Starr to give up on 17 April

(nice try, though); and

announcing that the "three-way

game" between Starr, Lewinsky,

and Clinton was reaching its

climax on 23 June. Keep this up,

of course, and real-life human

beings occasionally blunder into

doing something that correlates

to your news stories. Which, if

you're paying attention, is when

you clap your hands together,

throw open the window, and shout

"See? We told you so!" to a

grateful world.


Eventually, if you aren't

careful, you run out of things

to say. This is especially

possible if the facts in your

chosen story drip too slowly

into the mix - if, for example,

there's some kind of secrecy

involved in your story, some

curtain that prevents a clear

view of the action. Let's use

... ah, hell, how 'bout a grand

jury proceeding? To prevent

silence - to prevent depriving

the people (who you're here to

serve) of news - you'll have to

keep talking; to keep from

simply repeating yourself,

you'll have to become more

shrill, more extreme, more ...

vivid. But this should be easy:

You'll be in a pushing match

with an equal and opposite

force, remember? Both of you

should build up plenty of

momentum to go quite far out.


[that's how i feel.]

This means that if, in February,

"the deep and twisted roots of

Kenneth Starr's Clinton

inquisition stretch back to the

dark corners of the 1992

presidential campaign," by July

you have to come up with

something like: "To understand

this real conspiracy's

dimensions, and where Starr's

obsessive pursuit of Clinton

fits in, go back decades before

Monica Lewinsky or the

Whitewater real estate deal, to

1952-53...." (And do take a

close look at that last story -

which uses the delightful term

"known conservatives." It contains

a wonderful description of a

character who "moved a piece on

the Washington chessboard that

was scarcely noticed at the time

but would have the most profound

implications," and reveals in

dark tones that many

conservative judges are known to

belong to ... an organization.

Coming next month in The

American Spectator: Clinton,

Gore, and Babbitt are discovered

to have risen from the ranks of

a so-called "Leadership



And then, finally,

as you perpetually stare

across at the opposition

to create balance, the

opposition will begin to be most

of what you can see. Your own

counterweight eventually becomes

your most important story, and

you become its. There may be

someone on earth who cares about

the repeated broadsides and

exposés (to the extent

that shrill, thin hysterics

qualify for that description)

traded back and forth between

The American Spectator

and Salon, or Salon

and the editorial page of The

Wall Street Journal, but we

haven't met them. Give these

people another three months,

we're thinking, and they'll be

revealing that Emmett Tyrrell

irons his lace underwear.


Which leaves us - well, which

leaves us here, unfortunately,

and now, stuck at the periphery

of an ineffably tiresome circle

jerk that just ... won't ...

end. We're not precisely sure of

its exact location, but we're

prepared to assert - vigorously,

with a steak knife clenched in

our white-knuckled hands - that

there must have been a point,

somewhere, at which the entire

metastasizing hell of Ken

Starr's "investigation" could

have been ended, instantly, if

it just hadn't been mentioned in

the news for a few hours. Turn

off the cameras, put the

notebooks away, watch it vanish.

A cop told us a story, once -

and a little too gleefully, come

to think of it - about a robbery

suspect shot by two other

cops. We didn't believe it then,

but we're prepared to believe it

now, having seen the principle

in action: One cop, on the

suspect's left, shot him dead;

he started to fall, but a cop on

his right fired and knocked him

back the other way; the other

cop fired again, and knocked him

back in the original direction,

dead but almost dancing; and on

through a pair of 15-round

magazines, shooters to the right

and left propping up a corpse by

continuing to pour fire into it,

into a dead man trapped on his

feet. Bullshit, but a great



And really, despite the efforts

of a few newspaper cranks to

stop it - such as Howard Kurtz,

who wrote all the way back in

January that "the furious pace

of the coverage of alleged

sexual misconduct in the White

House has all but shattered

traditional media standards and

opened the floodgates to a

torrent of thinly sourced

allegations and unrestrained

speculation" - the Starr-Clinton

bout neatly illustrates, and

maybe accelerates, the

incredible dying spiral of

conventional news formats; not

media, note, but formats.

These conventional formats

stretch across every medium, and

are dying equally, or are

already equally dead on their


courtesy of Ambrose Beers