Out of Character

Character journalism gives most journalists the creeps, but maybe they've defined it too narrowly.

The media club is in a real twist over the Bush intelligence scandal. Under most circumstances, we'd have nothing but affection for a big nasty like this one.

The latest developments read like one of those cheesy Washington thrillers that hacks are always writing on the side: the ambassador with the undercover wife, the trip to Niger, the non-existent uranium, the whispered betrayal, a columnist known as "the Prince of Darkness." When life imitates cheese, and phrases like "full-scale criminal investigation" and "special counsel" start flying around, journalists are normally in ecstasy.

The problem is, on this story we're not just running around uncovering dirt, we are the dirt. Everywhere you looked this week, media types were talking about what a mess this scandal is ... for the media.

"The public is real interested in this story about the Bush administration leaking a CIA operative's name—and the media are not looking too good in the process," wrote The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz in an online column. The Associated Press darkly reported, "News executives expressed concern that the investigation could lead to subpoenas of reporters' notes and phone records—and the journalists themselves."

Meanwhile, in the broader scandal about intelligence claims used to justify the Iraq war, the media are also getting pummeled. Even as the outed-spy story was breaking, the American Journalism Review was publishing a piece about the media's poor performance in covering administration allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The headline: "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?"

In trying to suss out why the prewar coverage wasn't more critical, writer Rachel Smolkin argues that the media are not terribly eager to ask tough questions about war and other policy matters. Journalists, she contends, prefer the sorts of character issues that drove the Clinton scandals: "Bush's controversies generally have centered not on character but on policy, an arena where newspaper and television reporters are less comfortable characterizing actions."

This is true, in a limited way. Policy reporting is tough to begin with. When the issue is war, and the evidence is largely secret intelligence, aggressive reporting is extremely difficult. How do you question evidence you haven't even seen? You could sense the media's angst all through the months leading up to war. The coverage was tentative, and we generally took the administration at its word.

But is it true that when it comes to covering the White House, the media prefer "character" stories, and that the chief reason we fell down on the war-intelligence story was that it lacked this dimension?

In fact, inside the media trade, character journalism is a suspect genre. Ever since the media reported on Gary Hart's sex life and effectively ended his political career, elite journalists have been plagued with guilt. Academic papers and books have bemoaned the fact that anyone ever ventured into character reporting. To the guardians of media ethics, to report on "character"—and they like to put it in quotes—is to report on trash.

This view is especially prevalent when the political stakes are highest, i.e., during a presidential campaign. Watch the news about the candidates and note how much is about the mechanics of the race itself, how much is about policy, and how much is about the moral fiber of the contenders. This last category terrifies reporters, because it seems squishy and judgmental. Far easier to focus on what's happening in the Iowa caucuses, or the candidates' positions on taxes, than to assess their personal virtues.

This even held during the Clinton era. We tend to think of the '90s as one long string of character scandals, but in the 1996 presidential campaign, the various Clinton scandals actually went on temporary hiatus. Even the Paula Jones lawsuit disappeared from the front pages, though it would later come back to haunt all of us. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a mainstream journalist who looks back at that story and misses it. Character journalism gives most journalists the creeps.

And sometimes, that's a shame. What we've done is defined character so narrowly that it's basically become a synonym for sex. But character is a very broad concept, and the more serious the question at hand, the more significant character becomes. When a president asks a nation to go to war, and presents that war as the highest moral calling, and speaks with confidence about the facts he believes justify that war, isn't that a character issue? And if it turns out those facts weren't quite as he presented them, isn't that a character issue, too?

All last winter and right through the start of the Iraq war, there was something odd about this president's determination to go after Saddam. The arguments were all very high-minded, very policy-focused. But watching the man, it was hard not to feel that the war decision had been made long ago, somewhere deep inside him, that it was a personal decision rooted in forces that nobody fully understood. We still don't understand those forces, whether they're good or bad, or perhaps some mix of the two. Now, with campaign season upon us, don't expect the media to fix that.