Monday, January 21, 2002

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the Paul Krugman/Enron flap is not that he took $50,000 from the company and wrote glowingly about it before turning on it when it collapsed, or that he then lambasted certain politicians for doing roughly the same thing, or that other journalists are trashing him for his supposed hypocrisy, or that his allies are defending his positions as completely consistent. That kind of partisan squabbling is hardly new. What is new is that I have yet to see a single soul invoke the journalist's traditional "ink-stained wretch" defense: "I'm just a powerless reporter, pen in hand, saying what I think; it's the bigshot politicians, the people who make the rules for the rest of us, who must be watched carefully, not weak li'l ol' me." At one time, any demand that journalists be as accountable as the politicians they cover would have been met with an impenetrable wall of this sort of rhetoric. But it seems as though the claim that a columnist for the New York Times is less influential (and therefore less deserving of public scrutiny) than, say, a random member of the House Banking Committee just won't fly anymore.

If that's true, then we may well be witnessing the first few drops of a hurricane, as the complex modern culture of state-of-the-art partisan scandalmongering, having obliterated the last traces of traditional gentleman's politics, careens towards the formerly irenic pastures of gentleman's journalism. Will top scribes ever again be able to flit back and forth between government or industry flack jobs and press gigs with ease? Will speaking engagements, book contracts and "gifts" to reporters be studied with the same level of suspicion now applied to transactions involving politicians? Will their private lives, as well, be fair game? Or will the public, disillusioned by an endless stream of imbroglios, eventually demote the elite press back down to their original social level alongside gossips, spies, and, uh, bloggers? Only time will tell....

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