The Magnifying Media

The same competitiveness that drives those lurid crime stories is at work in the Richard Clarke drama.

Yep, the media have countless faults. Lately, it seems the whole news business is flying down the chute to some well-deserved hell.

But there's one thing the trade has gotten really good at. It's a skill that's on florid display these days, and while we're all kvetching about lousy journalism, it deserves a nod.

I'm talking about the media's ability to take a single news story and blow it up to such gigantic proportions that it appears to blot out the rest of our collective reality. I say "appears" because it's really just an illusion. No matter how much play a story gets, it's never the only news being reported.

Still, there's a sense out there that this special talent, this tendency to magnify certain stories to many times their original size, is dangerous. In the late '90s, there was mass revulsion at the media's fascination with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and a broad belief that the story had been overinflated. There are always several true-crime cases taking up national media space that they don't seem to deserve. Who magnified Scott and Laci, and what were they thinking?

There's a healthy human reaction against media sensations, a suspicion we're being taken for a ride, conned. And often we are.

But there's a major upside to the magnification effect, one that's generally overlooked. It's playing out before us right now in the Richard Clarke story. Two weeks ago, very few Americans had heard of Clarke. I'd wager that most journalists outside Washington didn't know his name. Now the entire global media establishment speaks about him as if he's always been the Richard Clarke, giant-killer. "Four successive U.S. presidents have picked Richard Clarke to defend the country against terrorists," began a BBC story I saw online this week. Defend the country. He's not just a bureaucrat, he's a one-man army!

How did this happen? Over the course of a week, the Clarke story traced the ultimate trajectory for political news: Sunday on 60 Minutes; three days later, the dramatic appearance before the 9/11 commission with that inspired apology to the victims' survivors; the ensuing Washington "firestorm"; and, the following Sunday, a full-hour interview on Meet the Press with Tim Russert.

And the story is still flying high. Decades after Watergate, we're supposed to be jaded about such frenzies. You'd never know it from cruising around Washington this week. It's as though everyone in the news business is high on a fantastic new drug, but the drug is a man, his book, and what they're doing to Condi Rice and the whole Bush operation. There's a definite sense, inchoate but palpable, that if we're very lucky and say our media prayers, there might even be ... a cancer on the presidency. The enduring dream.

Dandy for Washington hacks, but what about everyone else? What does the magnification of Clarke do for them? Quite a bit. Stand back and look at this story, and it's pretty miraculous how the whole process has sped up since the Watergate days, how quickly the information gets out, how soon the firestorm narrative—a bit juvenile in its most basic form—takes on real depth and texture. Days after learning Clarke's name, any alert media consumer could recite the various versions of who was in the loop when, and why they fell out of it.

And the versions really are various. Ideological media critics make a lot of dough arguing that media bias cuts decisively in one direction or the other. But does it, really? If you watched Clarke's initial media appearances, and the giddy way the media seized on them, you might feel he was getting the hero treatment rather prematurely. But then, switch over to, say, Colin Powell last weekend with Bob Schieffer, and you got a whole different take on the man and his tenure. Then there was the mesmerizing Russert appearance, which wasn't about partisan swordplay, but character. It was like a massive group-therapy session, with Tim as shrink, guiding the rest of us along as we tried to figure out whether the new guy is for real or just a slick, venal score-settler—or maybe both.

We're even starting to learn the nuances of Clarke's own relationships with the media, a topic that wasn't even part of the game 20 years ago. (Indeed, the media are especially good at magnifying their own scandals. There's a reason Jayson Blair is more famous than most serial killers.)

The point is, magnification works. It isn't always pretty, particularly when the story you're staring at day and night wasn't worth enlarging in the first place. We all deserve a break from gruesome crimes among lumpen Californians. But the same intense focus, the same fierce media competitiveness that drives those lurid crime stories, is at work on really significant stories like the Clarke drama. It's nice to imagine a media establishment wise enough to distinguish between the two—one that had a better sense of when to magnify and why. For the moment, let's appreciate what we've got.

Just a year ago, the president was taking the country to war, a project of enormous danger and consequence. The air was full of rational policy arguments: Saddam was evil, and the world would be a better, safer place without him. But there was a nagging feeling that this war wasn't finally rooted in policy, but in the president himself. Bush seemed to have a deep personal fixation on Iraq and its dictator that made war inevitable. Why? What was that all about? It's the great story that nobody's nailed. Now, thanks to our magnifying ways, we may be getting closer.