The Touch of Evil

Reading the press this week, it was almost possible—almost, but not quite—to see what really makes the journalism business go.

"The great day has finally arrived," exulted The New York Times editorial page on the day the Senate would pass McCain-Feingold.

The paper wasn't speaking just for itself, but channeling the passion of the whole trade, which believes in its heart that money is the root of all evil. It's a cliché, a mangled phrase from the Bible ("Love of money is the root of all evil"), a crude simplification. But we believe it's based on something true. It's why we listened when Deep Throat told us to follow the money, and why we turned those words into a cliché all their own.

Both clichés took a bow in The Washington Post on the great day, in a story that tried to explain why so many journalists have been pulling for one politician (Sen. John McCain) and his legislation. "Journalists who have reported on hundreds of scandal stories believe the political culture is utterly corrupted by money," wrote Howard Kurtz. One of his sources observed that journalists accept the core idea behind campaign finance reform—that all evil grows from money. And Kurtz himself invoked Deep Throat.

This is all true, as far it goes. But does it go far enough? Is the disgust of journalists covering politics enough to explain the unusual intensity with which nearly every pressie has seized on this question? After all, money has always flowed around and into politics. We're just more aware of it today, thanks to laws that require lobbyists to register with the government, and campaigns to report their contributions.

Fifty years ago, there was no great press bandwagon for getting the money out of politics. Are you kidding? The money-politics nexus gave the hacks their best work, and they rather enjoyed the horror of it all.

So what has changed? What is it about this moment in the evolution of our trade that has made journalists so avid to eradicate the evil of money?

Let's follow the money, and see where it takes us.

Follow it into the newsrooms of America, which used to be filled with social misfits, working-class scrappers, and half-drunk crusaders who viewed the monied elite from a great distance. Rich people and corporate titans were not people you went to Yale with or had over for dinner. They were a bunch of exotic beasts you wrote about, people who were defined by their money and seemed to organize their lives around keeping it. They were The Other, and corrupt almost by definition. Telling the public about their foibles and depravities was pure joy.

Now, follow the money to the present, and its newsrooms packed with ambitious, sober Ivy Leaguers, people in pursuit of truth, justice, and big dollars. Journalists still don't make much money at the start of their careers. But if they're talented, work their tails off, and cultivate the right people, they stand a decent chance of winding up not just comfortable, but rich.

Follow the money to Brooklyn Heights, Cleveland Park, Pelham, and all of the other places where the most-successful journalists, including some from the notoriously wretched print tribe, are living in the most unwretched circumstances, on incomes that are many multiples of the average American household income. Follow it to the New York book publishers, who are giving healthy six-figure advances to more than a few journalists you've never heard of. Follow it into the negotiations for the film rights on those books.

Follow the money to Barbara Walters and her reported salary of $12 million a year. Follow it to the television pundits and news readers and their speaking fees. Follow it to President Clinton's late 2000 exit interview with Jann Wenner, who is not only the editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, but also a millionaire Democratic fund-raiser. Watch as journalist Wenner uses the interview to give Clinton the names of more than a dozen convicted drug offenders Wenner would like to see pardoned ... and as Clinton obliges, pardoning 14.

Follow the money to the White House Correspondents' Dinner this month, where, if previous years are any guide, you'll see the cream of the profession, a sizable horde, partying with movie stars and assorted millionaire pals.

We have become The Other. And this isn't necessarily bad news. A society that puts a high value on journalism is arguably healthier than one that doesn't. Plus, there are side benefits, ways in which the enrichment of the media class is making us more conscious of how money really works, because we're more closely linked to it than ever before.

Now that we know the sorts of people who line the pockets of politicians—we show up at the same parties together, and send our kids to the same schools—we find influence-buying more repulsive than ever, and want it stamped out. It's one thing to watch corruption from a distance. But when the people doing the corrupting look, speak, and dress just like you, it really takes the fun out of this media life.

So every time you see a journalist pulling for McCain-Feingold, have a little sympathy. They're just trying to root out the worst kind of corruption, which isn't corruption of the system, but of the self.