The Breakfast Table

Close Quarters

Dear Steve,

The worst example of one story to the exclusion of all others was Monica. I wrote 47 times last year, 46 about the scandal. I know there were other, much more important things that were being neglected, but Time magazine, like most other news organizations, dwelt on the obvious. A scandal that almost resulted in the impeachment of a president had to be covered thoroughly, but not exclusively.

An editor I once had said the worst thing you can do is spend time with a person you are writing about because his humanity will confuse you. Stick to the paper trail, otherwise the first thing you know you’ll see a fuller picture, which can only dilute your point, muddy your mind. Washington is so small, it’s hard not to know the people you cover. Unlike in New York, there are no other circles. And it’s compact enough that everyone is thrown together at church, school, charities, Orioles games. But despite what most people think, many journalists would run over their grandmother for a story, to paraphrase Charles Colson. And many did during Monica. As for Bill Bennett, I disagree with him all the time, both his pre-Monica stance–that all morality resided in the People rather than the Elite–and his post-Monica stance–that the People had lost their morals as well. But I like him, his kids, his wife, and his brother and presidential lawyer, Bob, who disagrees with him most of all. (Small world: My daughter went to school with his.)

I don’t have a defense for it, and know that the close quarters can sometimes lead to trimming the edges, cutting slack, being oblivious to someone’s dark side because you spend so much time in the light. But there was something to be said for the old days when Tip ONeill and Richard Nixon played poker, when Everett Dirksen said “my esteemed colleague” and meant it. Recently, a bipartisan group in Congress tried to get Democrats and Republicans to go away together; if they played golf, went bowling, they might find something to transcend the vicious, embittered feeling exhibited over the past six years. Very few people went. For journalists, the solution might be to switch beats after you spend say 10 years here, or become a columnist.

Godspeed with Content, which I will read even more avidly.

All the best,