Hail, Rhodes Scholars! Geniuses at Sucking Up

For nearly a week after it was in the hands of important journalists, you couldn’t get a copy of Brill’s Content in Manhattan. I know because I walked from newsstand to newsstand making a monkey of myself. ” Brillzzz Con Tent ,” I said with Miss America enunciation, and the Indian guys looked back at me with frozen smiles. For five days, the talking heads were arguing about the piece on television, and Mr. Brill’s content still hadn’t trickled down to the public. On Thursday, June 18, a guy at Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center told me there was a problem with the publisher and they hadn’t gotten any. I finally found a copy at a newsstand on Madison Avenue. (Funny thing about that, Condé Nast is upstairs.)

I read the article over the weekend. It’s very long, and the style is both slashing and casual. I think I read it all, but I won’t swear to it. I wanted to finish The Tempest .

Mr. Brill’s main point is that professional journalists have yielded their judgment to gossips on the Monica Lewinsky story, and gossips are unreliable and biased.

Unquestionably, Mr. Brill is right. The Monica Lewinsky story has aggrandized gossips as never before. Partly this is because the President has had nothing to say. But meantime, Matt Drudge and Lucianne Goldberg have had as much influence over the discussion as anyone, and “Trixie” and “Mattsky,” to use Mrs. Goldberg’s handles, are true Runyonesque gossips.

And at some level many Americans seem to trust them more than all the fancy journalists. How did we get to this spot?

The simple answer is that journalists have sacrificed their street smarts for status. One page in Mr. Brill’s magazine is headlined “How Do They Know?” and reproduces the schooling credentials of a dozen medical and science reporters. The belief that we “know” by going to school is an unfortunate belief of the meritocracy. There are other ways of knowing things besides having high test scores. In my experience, gossips tend to work on their gut and make judgments from a few observations. Whereas professional reporters trust piles of facts, usually produced by other professionals. After years of official statements from a highly professionalized White House that, as Stuart Taylor put it in the National Journal , “torture the truth” on one scandal after another, gossips seem to have gotten at a richer layer of truth on Bill Clinton’s operation than the reporters who have been retailing the White House statements, albeit with raised eyebrows.

The most revealing moment in Matt Drudge’s bravura appearance at the National Press Club on June 2 came when one of the reporters there asked, “Do you think journalists should have any minimum educational requirements?”

The goofy young folk hero, who was so low in his high school class that he despaired of going to college, and did stints at the 7-Eleven and the CBS gift shop before he went on line, got a quizzical look.

“I don’t maintain that I am licensed or have credentials,” he said. “I created my own. I don’t know what the problem is with that. It seems to me the more freedoms we have, the better off we are.”

In their snobbery, the pros have missed good information. Mr. Brill dismisses a CNBC panel of Rivera Live as a “dinner party conversation from hell,” in no small part because of the inclusion of “one Dolly Browning, who has written a novel (agented by Lucianne Goldberg), which is described as a fictionalized version of her own long affair with Bill Clinton.” This strikes me as sexist and belligerent. Dolly Kyle Browning, who was deposed in the Paula Jones case, actually knows a lot about Bill Clinton. By the President’s own admission, they are old friends, and her portrait of Mr. Clinton as Cameron Coulter in her book Purposes of the Heart , which she published herself, is an insightful and at times loving one. In fact, Mrs. Browning’s loyalty to Mr. Clinton might be thought to have saved his first candidacy. In 1992, right after Gennifer Flowers held her press conference, the Star offered Mrs. Browning six figures for her story, and she refused to give it to them (“We tried to make a deal with her, but she would never make a deal,” said Phil Bunton of the Star ). At that time, Mrs. Browning says, her own brother called her from the Clinton campaign and said she would be “destroyed” if she went public.

Is it possible that Dolly Browning’s way of “knowing” Bill Clinton may be more helpful in understanding the Monica Lewinsky case than the official statements?

On Larry King Live , CBS reporter Scott Pelley said, foolishly, that Mr. Drudge is not a journalist because he doesn’t have editors and work for an organization. Meritocrats love big prestige organizations. They should; prestige institutions made them. Alison Muscatine goes from The Washington Post to the speechwriter’s office. George Stephanopoulos goes from Bill Clinton’s side to Sam Donaldson’s, and is shocked, shocked to find out how his President behaves. Meritocrats are always the last to know.

Both Ms. Muscatine and Mr. Stephanopoulos are former Rhodes scholars, and there are a staggering number of Rhodesies in media and politics. The Association of American Rhodes Scholars is to the meritocracy what the Trilateral Commission was to the military-industrial complex. Mr. Clinton, Robert Reich, Strobe Talbott, Ira Magaziner, deputy chiefs of staff, undersecretaries, speechwriters, leading ambassadors (England and India) all went to the school Jay Gatsby merely visited. As for the media, two of the three editors of the newsweeklies are Rhodesies (only the anti-Clinton Newsweek is headed by a non-Rhodes), so are the Washington Post president and a half-dozen reporters there, a couple of reporters at The New York Times , author Naomi Wolf, Slate boss Michael Kinsley. Remember, all these people, when they could have been out on the American interstate, chose as their formative adult experience to suck up to powerful people to get recommendations to go to England and climb a social ladder.

Mr. Brill is more entrepreneurial than the Rhodesies, but his overeducated legalisms are reminiscent of the White House lawyers’.

For instance, there’s the episode where Mr. Brill chastises reporters for characterizing the President’s famous Sunday session with Betty Currie the day after his deposition in the Paula Jones case as a “coaching” session. All The New York Times reported, he points out, is that Ms. Currie “was taken by the President through a series of rhetorical questions and answers.”

But consider: On Saturday, June 17, a day earlier, Ms. Jones’ attorneys had ambushed the President with questions about Vernon Jordan’s efforts to get Monica Lewinsky a job, and Mr. Clinton repeatedly put the responsibility on Betty Currie.

“Betty. I think that’s what Betty–I think Betty did that. I think Monica talked to Betty about moving to New York … She was a friend of Betty. I certainly wouldn’t have been opposed to it.… if you’re asking did I set the meeting up, I do not believe that I did. I believe that Betty did that, and she may have mentioned, asked me if I thought it was all right if she did it, and if she did ask me, I would have said Yes, and so if that happened, then I did something to cause the conversation to occur … But I don’t believe that I actually was the precipitating force. I think that she and Betty were close, and I think Betty did it.”

And the next day, Mr. Clinton calls Betty Currie in to the White House to go over questions and answers.

It may be “precise” (the highest Brill value) to say that The Times alleged that Mr. Clinton was merely reviewing rhetorical questions with Ms. Currie. But at what point do people use their brains? If Ted Koppel wishes to characterize the Times allegation as coaching, that seems fair to me. In this case, Mr. Brill’s insistence on precision and source-naming amounts to a euphemistic idiocy. Gossips call spades spades.

Gossip may not always reach Mr. Drudge’s avowed 80 percent accuracy, but everyone knows it can be informative. “All truths begin as hearsay, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Drudge said at the press club. That’s why many good reporters love gossip, why Sidney Blumenthal was checking out the Drudge Report on a Sunday night when he could have been reading Walter Lippmann. Mr. Blumenthal feeds on gossip himself. (In his play about the media, This Town , Mr. Blumenthal’s cast of noxious Washington reporters gossip about David Halberstam playing softball in the Hamptons, about Bob Dole’s dog, and about a nameless First Lady who is trying to reinvent government and is having lesbian affairs. Maybe Hillary Clinton should sue Mr. Blumenthal for $30 million.)

At least you know what side Mr. Blumenthal is on, and you know what side Mrs. Goldberg and Mr. Drudge are on. Which is more than you can say for Mr. Brill, who gaslit us on point of view. His piece is pro-Clinton. It says that reporters had harder evidence of Ken Starr’s felonies than of any in the White House. That’s a fine point of view, but it’s a point of view, and consistent with the fact that Mr. Brill has given big contributions to Bill Clinton. But on talk shows, I saw Mr. Brill repeatedly sidestep the issue of his slant, saying that his report was about the press, not the underlying questions.

We’ve read Janet Malcolm, and we’re smarter than that. Which is one more reason we’ve given the gossips power. We may not like their politics, but we know where Mattsky and Trixie are coming from, and they save us the sanctimony.

(A word on behalf of the meritocracy: Earlier this year, I sent a letter to Mr. Brill at what was then called Content on behalf of a friend who was looking for work. Mr. Brill, whom I’d met when he offered me a job at The American Lawyer , didn’t respond. My nose was out of joint. I went to Harvard. They’re not supposed to treat me like that.)

Hail, Rhodes Scholars! Geniuses at Sucking Up