The Fedora Gap

The media tree house has been rocking over New York Post gossip writer Jared Paul Stern's alleged $220,000 shakedown of supermarket mogul Ron Burkle. The conventional take on the story is that this tells us all we need to know about tabloid ethics and the nastiness of New York's fast lane.

Maybe so. I think this story has more to teach us about ... the Bush White House.

Stay with me here. In the first four days after the gossip scandal broke, The New York Times published 10,000 breathless words about it. News outlets around the world joined in the fun. Here's China's state-owned Xinhua news service: "If there's anything lovelier than reading the dirt in Page Six of New York Post, it's reading the dirt about Page Six itself."

Other than the joy of watching some of our sketchier colleagues plummet, why did the media fall so in love with this scandal?

It's the central-casting details: the scheming dirt-digger; his high-living boss; the fedora; the billionaire obsessed with his own image; the taped sting; the "Skull and Bones" clothing line; and, a few days ago, the de riguer surprise twist: Stern's claim that Burkle initiated the whole thing and thus was the real bad actor.

It's these stock features, the color so familiar you're sure you've seen it before, that make a scandal fly. As every savvy journalist knows, the stories that really get altitude are not the ones that feel truly new, but those that play into the oldest cliches. There's nothing new about gossipmongers on the take, a story line so ancient, it's folkloric. And that's the beauty of it.

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Some observers have noted what a relief it was to finally have an old-fashioned press scandal to enjoy. Writing on the Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, media critic Paul McClearly called it "almost a breath of fresh air ... an episode that is entirely a descendant of journalism's sordid, romantic, sleazy past, something worthy of the wacky tabloid ways and wars of the 1950s or even the 1920s." Exactly.

Of course, not all news stories make that familiar click. And the reason the Stern-Burkle story took off so quickly is the same reason the story of President Bush's troubles hasn't. The most significant, damaging story of this administration, the Iraq war and the decisions that got us into it, has few of those straight-out-of-a-movie details. There is no fedora-wearing villain behind Iraq (Jack Abramoff doesn't count), no taped gotcha. For novelistic characters and details, this White House is stunningly impoverished.

Not that journalists haven't been trying. Endless stabs have been taken at echoing classic story lines, Watergate in particular, but they've come up pretty empty. No turncoat of the John Dean variety has appeared—Scooter Libby apparently declined the role—and no blabbermouth is playing Martha Mitchell. There are no known bagmen, zero plumbers.

A lot of really bad decisions clearly happened, yet there is no evidence that Bush huddled in a dark room somewhere with Haldemanesque cronies and plotted in classic Nixon fashion to willfully deceive the public—and if all goes well, destroy the world. If he did, the tape hasn't surfaced.

The Downing Street memo was a bust. Plame is still foggy, hard to follow. The list goes on and on. Desperation for material is the real reason Dick Cheney's hunting accident took off as a story. For a few days there, it seemed that the veep was finally becoming the Strangelovian madman he's always needed to be for this tale to work. Then he went on TV, the picture of contrition. Fizzle.

A little Jared Paul Stern color would be nice right now in White House-land, but the truth appears to be deeply mundane: Bush and his people earnestly believed that going to war was a fantastic idea, for Iraq and for the U.S. They pursued it with absolute, unwavering focus, believing whatever they needed to believe, saying what they needed to say. Off to Baghdad we went, and here we are.

So the frustrated media go to New York for material. Let them. Sometimes the public doesn't need a huge, cliche-driven story to get the truth. Just look at the polls.