Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 20, 1998 / 22 Tevet, 5758
Feeding the beast
Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
WASHINGTON -- THE TAXICAB PULLED UP in front of the office building, and the media horde rushed it as if it were carrying gold bullion.
In fact, it was carrying only Paula Jones, but to the waiting reporters and photographers, she was better than gold.
She was news. She was entertainment. She was newstainment.
As she emerged from the taxi with her husband and two lawyers, the camera people pounced, shoving their lenses into her face.
She was getting a "full O.J.," the kind of feeding frenzy reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson trial.
She recoiled, as anyone would, and tried to take a step back. But the way was blocked by more cameras and more reporters, and soon, she had no room to breathe, let alone move.
"Get away! Get away! Get away!" one of her lawyers screamed, trying to knock the metal snouts of the TV cameras away from Jones' face.
"I can't move," Jones said meekly, a terrified newsmaker-caught-in-the-headlights look now on her face.
Her husband put his arm around her and tried to shoulder a path for them, but that was very difficult, and soon, everybody just got stuck in this great roiling mass in the middle of the street.
I was on the outer fringes, my notebook and pen in hand, taking this all down. It is the advantage of the note-taker to stay close to the action but out of harm's way and still report the story.
For the TV people and still photographers, getting the picture and getting the sound is everything, and they often do not have the luxury of behaving in a civilized manner.
We were all there for the same purpose, however: We were feeding the beast.
This is a modern journalistic term meaning we were all throwing news into a vast hole that seems to have an insatiable appetite for whatever we provide.
News, as if you hadn't noticed, is a continuous process now. You can get news from radio, TV, newspapers, magazines and on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
That is a lot of space and time to fill. And people like me are employed to fill it.
With just about anything.
Though, as I think we can all agree, there is not an insatiable interest in, let's say, the current crisis in Algeria. (Would anybody like to find Algeria on the map? How about picking the correct continent? Don't blame yourself. Schools today seem to rate themselves on what kind of computer equipment they have, rather than what kind of geography they teach.)
There does seem to be such interest, however, in news events that cross the line into mass entertainment: O.J. Simpson, the Boston Nanny, Princess Diana and, of course, Paula Jones.
Paula Jones is a story about sex, politics, constitutional law, government, feminism, fashion and class all rolled into one. I checked my clips and found that I started writing about the Jones story in May 1994 (when Jones filed her suit), and there hasn't been a year since that I haven't written about it.
So what was there left to say by the time Saturday rolled around and President Clinton was scheduled to show up for his deposition in response to Jones' sexual harassment suit?
Like most reporters, I had already written a lengthy analysis piece, outlining the history of the case, the charges and denials, and the implications for Clinton. I had interviewed lawyers who had represented Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in the depositions they had given (though they were not defendants, a dubious historic honor for Clinton) about how opposing lawyers behave when it comes to asking questions of a president (respectfully, it turns out).
Again, like most reporters, I had done an advance piece the day before the deposition, reviewing all the pertinent facts. Now, it was Saturday, and here I was, standing in a street with several hundred other news gatherers even though all the principals in the case and their lawyers are under a gag order and not supposed to say anything.
Why were we all there? Because the beast has to be fed. There was blank space in newspapers and dead air time on radio and TV to be filled. (After I finished my print story, I went on TV and said the same stuff.)
So even catching a few gasps from Paula Jones as she almost got trampled by reporters was enough for the beast.
Reporting that Paula Jones had traveled from California with her hairdresser was enough.
Reporting that she wore a maize-colored pantsuit and the president wore a dark business suit was enough.
Reporting that Clinton spent six hours answering questions with Jones across the table from him was enough. (Actually, that is the media's educated guess. No reporter was there. For all we really know, Clinton and Jones could have played Ping-Pong for six hours.)
The beast was fed. For a moment. But the feeding never ends because the beast's appetite never diminishes.
Sometimes I wonder, however, just who is the beast?
Is it the people who cover the news or the people who consume it?
Or is it both, neither side willing to call a halt and consider just what we are doing and why?
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already