The Tabloids Win on Substance

To understand why the supermarket tabloids have been scooping the prestige media left and right lately—both Jesse Jackson's love child and Hugh Rodham's "success fee" broke in The National Enquirer—look no further than George Stephanopoulos.

He and the other regulars on ABC's This Week were gasbagging last Sunday about the Clinton pardons, with Stephanopoulos contending that Washington cares too much about the story. "I'm not defending the pardons," he said, but rather questioning "our sense of proportion ... and the amount of attention we're paying to it."

Cokie Roberts cut in. "But let's talk about what's happening inside the Democratic Party as a result," she said, noting that Democrats on Capitol Hill are having a hard time selling themselves as "the party of the little guy" while the press is demanding they comment on Clinton's pardons of "all these rich people." She seemed to be saying that because the pardon story has exposed hypocrisy among the powerful—that old journalistic staple—it might be more worthy of the nation's attention than Stephanopoulos had suggested.

Rather than answer this argument, Stephanopolous used an old debate-society trick and pretended that Roberts had just agreed with him. "You're exactly right," he said, "and that's why they need to get the debate back to substance."

Get the debate back to substance. Think about that for a moment. Here is a celebrity journalist—or a celebrity who plays a journalist on TV—telling us that possible abuse of a presidential power is not substance.

To anyone familiar with the basic purpose of journalism in democracy, this might seem like a strange notion. But it's not unique to Stephanopoulos, who was merely enunciating a view that is now fashionable, even de rigueur, among mainstream journalists.

Since the beginning of the Clinton presidency, elites have adopted a new definition of what is a legitimate subject for serious political journalism (i.e., "substance") and what isn't. Substance is the policy debate, legislative process, and electoral politics to the extent they all focus on what we reverentially refer to as "the issues." In the other category, the non-substance, falls anything that touches on the ethical behavior of powerful individuals. The more powerful the individual, the less acceptable it is to aggressively cover his or her ethics. The ethics of a President—even when he's exercising his constitutional powers—is considered such a vulgar subject, so downright skanky, that many elite journalists run from the subject.

Why? Because ethics is the realm of right and wrong, which takes us straight into the dreaded sleaze and scandal. These used to be journalistic favorites, but the Clintons skillfully persuaded the media class to file all ethical wrongdoing under the heading of "personal failings." This makes any journalist who cares about ethics seem cold, judgmental, even hateful.

Ethics is now a minefield, a place where a carefully constructed media career can be exploded to bits, if you acquire a reputation as a scandal journalist. Better to let others venture there and take their chances.

The others are the supermarket tabloids. The tabs don't care about the new aesthetics of political journalism, the quiet code that has made scandal suspect. They understand that the old definition of what constitutes a great story is still valid out there in the culture, even as this definition has been abandoned by media people in New York and Washington. The tabs love hypocrisy, especially among the rich and famous. When fancy folks are laid low by their own weaknesses, tab reporters are there, checkbook in hand, eager to break the news that makes mainstreamers queasy.

CLINTON PARDON PAYOFF EXPOSED: $200,000 DEPOSITED IN SECRET FAMILY BANK ACCOUNT, reads the cover of the current issue of the Enquirer, in big, bold, black-and-yellow letters. Inside, the paper delves into the story with a relish that none of the prestige sheets have brought to this tale, as they played catch-up with the tab. The piece features a photo from a holiday card sent out by A. Glenn Braswell, the pardoned herbal-remedy kingpin, and an aerial photo of his Coconut Grove, Fla., mansion. There's also a photo of a document showing the wire transfer of cash from a Braswell bank account into the account of Rodham's law firm.

The tabs have stepped into the breach opened by the triumph of "substance" over ethics, and are reaping the rewards. This is not to say that the tabs are noble defenders of freedom and justice, or role models for the rest of the media. They are in the news business purely for cash, not principle, and it shows in their work. The Enquirer, the most reliable of the large family of tabs owned by American Media, has come a long way, but it still plays a much looser game with the facts than the quality broadsheets. The tabs are careful exactly to the extent they need to be careful to avoid libel lawsuits, and not an inch more.

Despite their well-known flaws, the tabs are now serious players because they know that great journalism isn't just about bloodless policy and issue debates. It's about the ethical foibles and hypocrisies of the powerful. Do the two movie stars have a show marriage that serves their lucrative careers? Does our most important reverend have a love child? Did the President and his family abuse their power? Big-time journalists may shy away from such questions, but inquiring minds still want to know.