Stomping On The Scandalmongers

SCANDAL: THE CRISIS OF MISTRUST IN AMERICAN POLITICS

By Suzanne Garment

Times Books -- 335pp -- $23.00

FEEDING FRENZY: HOW ATTACK JOURNALISM HAS TRANSFORMED AMERICAN POLITICS

By Larry J. Sabato

Free Press -- 306pp -- $22.95

Americans have always loved a good scandal. And why not? From the muckrakers of Teddy Roosevelt's day to Woodward and Bernstein, watchdogs who howl at malfeasance and drive scoundrels from office have proven beneficial to democracy.

But there are growing whispers in Washington that something has gone awry. Instead of feasting on rot and decay so the body politic remains strong, the theory goes, the press is eating away at political culture itself. Fed by publicity-hungry legislators, overzealous prosecutors, and priggish bureaucrats, the media have become part of an insatiable "scandal industry" that's paralyzing government, poisoning debate, and driving good people from public service.

Now come Suzanne Garment's Scandal: The Crisis of Mistrust in American Politics and Larry J. Sabato's Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics to give voice to this view. If you buy the argument that we in journalism have become smug, sloppy, and too easily manipulated by people with hidden agendas--and to some extent I do--you'll find plenty in these books to cheer about. But both are flawed, and both authors' solutions are wrongheaded.

Garment's analysis is by far the better. Washington, she writes, now has a powerful, self-interested ethics industry born of Watergate. The hunt for bad deeds has become a business, "and large numbers of people have developed personal stakes in its continuing."

Garment, a former Wall Street Journal columnist now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, doesn't blame just inspectors general and Geraldo. She points to the rise of independent counsels, forced to justify their appointments with countless probes and trophy prosecutions. She blames Ralph Nader, Common Cause, and congressional watchdogs such as dreaded Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

So how come the press missed the savings and loan mess? Because, says Garment, "we have built ourselves a system that knows how to create a public outcry over even the appearance of an appearance of a conflict of interest, but could not get itself interested in the policy sins that underlay our savings and loan crisis until Charles Keating had personalized it for us."

Garment details the sagas of individuals, from John Tower and Jim Wright to E. Robert Wallach and Raymond Donovan, who she says have been tripped up by technicalities or unsubstantiated allegations. The upshot, as she sees it: The wheels of government, which need a little grease, have seized up. Constantly changing procurement laws aimed at trapping cheaters have made it hard for companies to do business. Managers in federal agencies confine expressions of opinion to disposable Post-it Notes. Corporate executives say they'd rather go broke than accept posts in Washington and submit to today's bare-all confirmation process. And voters turn off.

Garment's best chapter concerns Iran-contra. The scandal, "hollow at its core," degenerated into a "long, costly, endlessly publicized process" focused on impossible criminal prosecutions rather than the dangers that result when the White House and Congress can't formulate a coherent policy. Not even the Democrats on Capitol Hill wanted to take the process to its logical conclusion: the impeachment of Ronald Reagan. Americans scratched their heads, cheered Oliver North, and wondered what the shouting was about.

As one who has acted as a cog in the scandal machine on occasion, I think Garment has a point. But often she sounds like Miss Manners, scolding scandalmongers for treating people "indecently" and urging reporters to be nice.

Garment is married to Leonard Garment, a high-powered Washington fixer who was Richard Nixon's counsel during Watergate. As she acknowledges in her introduction, some of the people she writes about are friends or clients of her husband, including Wallach, who became embroiled in the Wedtech scandal, and former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane. Perhaps it's no accident, then, that her summation sounds like griping at a capital dinner party. In the book's worst chapter, she describes the sufferings of discredited appointees who can't get their calls returned and whose wives find their party invitations drying up. Oh, please.

Sabato, who believes "feeding frenzies" are polluting journalism, also offers an interesting litany of the press's sins. But he can't make up his mind. Sometimes he says journalists go too easy on politicians; other times he says we're too zealous. A University of Virginia political scientist, Sabato offers excellent insights into how reporters deal with sources and editors. But he treats the journalists he interviews with veneration even as they trash their peers.

Granted, both authors are on to something. But their remedies miss the point. While Garment's boils down to "be gentle," Sabato suggests a "fairness doctrine," yet another journalistic code of conduct.

Code, schmode. The best solution is for journalists to remember the basics. Be accurate. Be fair. If you can't pin it down, don't use it. And stop going to dinner parties and letting sources use you as mouthpieces. There's a solution that takes less than a paragraph. And, if given a choice between a press that keeps mum about a President who not only feels compelled to sleep with a different woman every day but also has policies to assassinate foreign leaders, and a press that gleefully reveals that a President conducts his routine according to his wife's astrologer, I'll take the latter any day.