Richard Reeves

A Theory of the Press

LOS ANGELES -- "You're doing this just to sell papers!"

"This" is writing about the Clintons, their deeds and misdeeds, their friends and relatives. I heard the line a dozen times last week after making speeches here and in Denver and San Diego.

"Selling papers" is a dated theory of why the press does what it does. It goes back to newstands and newsboys who yelled "Extra! Extra! Sleazebags strike again! Read all about it! Extra! Extra!" But that's over. Very few people buy papers anymore to find out what just happened; usually they know it already from radio, CNN and the Internet. Newspapers make money now from subscriptions and from advertising in monopoly markets.

In fact, among the biggest money-makers in the news business are free newspapers, given away at coffee shops and sidewalk boxes. Here in Los Angeles, until this week, the heavyweight Times was selling for 25 cents a copy, far less than it costs to produce. The paper was and probably still is losing money on every street sale.

We cover the Clintons because they are not boring. Most reporters and editors are trying to outrun such boring things as government and politics -- and are convinced that most Americans are just like them but more so. In terms of media attention, Bill and Hillary are not competing with the Bushs; they are competing with Eminem and O.J. The ex-president made that clear last week. Before he wrote his op-ed page defense of his unpardonable pardons in The New York Times, he called up Geraldo Rivera to try to defend himself.

In The Washington Post, which still costs just a quarter, columnist Richard Cohen put it this way last Wednesday: "Bush may be the dullest president since Calvin Coolidge. ... Bill Clinton (is) wonderful, newsworthy, controversial, hated, loved, polarizing."

He will not go away, and we don't want him to. Bill Clinton would rather be in trouble than be ignored. That seems good for us. The Clintons are yesterday's news, reprinted over and over again. We know that very well.

The real Washington has turned its face, all puckered up, toward George and Laura. And the real Washington includes the top levels of the press. On Wednesday night, Katherine Graham of The Washington Post hosted her first dinner for the Bushs and invited all the usual suspects, beginning with Bill Clinton's "best friend," Vernon Jordan. Others who came to groan over Clinton's bad manners in not disappearing included Ethel Kennedy, Alan Greenspan, Pat Moynihan, Jim Lehrer, Margaret Carlson, Ben Bradlee, Judy Woodruff and various other capital stars.

The king is dead. Long live the new guy!

But we're going to prop up King Bill for as long as we can. He is our El Cid. And we can always count on clowns such as Rep. Dan Burton and Sen. Arlen Specter, the great inquisitors, to keep beating a dead man on a horse.

Like Clinton, we want attention, too. We know we can't get it anymore with what people should know about Washington and governance. So we degrade what we cover -- and ourselves in the bargain.

However, it is not only us and freeze-dried Republicans. In talking to distinguished folks, from bankers and politicians to moguls and professors, in three of the great cities of the West, it was often clear to me that they do not read newspapers much any more and they certainly don't watch television news. They get what they feel they need to know from memos, newsletters, assistants and the Internet.

All this will get worse before it gets better -- if it ever gets better. It is not only that Bill Clinton will dance faster and faster to try to hold the audience; it is that the press has been reminded about Republican presidencies. Republicans don't talk, preferring to do their work in private and sending out spokesmen, including the president himself, to mangle the language and truth at the same time.

Our new rulers do not feel the need to explain themselves or their works. If they are cornered by events, as John Ashcroft was, they simply deny -- and they don't care if you believe them or not.

Poor Bill Clinton cares. He wants us to believe him. We don't, of course, but he's the only one talking to us these days.

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