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Historian: White House Sex Scandal 'Terrible Moment' in U.S. Journalism

Gays & Lesbians 'Should be Aware of the Danger!' Says Charles Kaiser

'Worst American Tradition of Sanctimonious, Hypocritical Puritanism'Kaiser

Compiled by Badpuppy's GayToday

ckaiser3.gif - 22.67 K Author Charles Kaiser speaks out against irresponsible journalism at the NLGJA Convention. Historian Charles Kaiser, in a keynote address to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist's Association last week said there are "broader responsibilities" journalists need to consider at the end of this decade. He called on lesbians and gay men to face major dangers that are posed by the unhappy growth of "sanctimonious, hypocritical Puritanism" in the press.

Kaiser, for seven years has been a board member of the NLGJA, is the author of two major histories, 1968 and The Gay Metropolis, and has recently been featured speaking about both works on C-Span and on C Span 2.

Kaiser has taught journalism at Princeton, has been an editor at Newsweek, and has reported for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. What he sees in the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal as reported in mainstream media becomes more relevant because of his insider status.

"Now I'm going to say some things that many of you may not agree with," he said, "but I believe them from the bottom of my heart. I think this is a terrible moment in the history of American journalism--probably the worst moment…"

Kaiser reflected on how journalists get paid to inform people about what they believe is important—and important to everyone. He concedes that "every newspaper and every television and radio station in the land is under more and more pressure to make larger and larger profits for their owners" but the historian says he doesn't think that the push for profits is the greatest problem right now, although it's not entirely unrelated to it.

"The greatest problem we face today is a massive failure of judgement," said Kaiser.

He charges: "For the last ten months, the judgement of the best and the brightest editors and news directors in our business has been that the most important story in America is the sex life of our president. It's more important than Bosnia; more important than Ireland; more important than race or poverty or anything else. Well it is more titillating; I'll grant you that. And it gets great ratings, especially on the cable networks.

"It seems to me, that more than anyone else, lesbians and gay men should be acutely aware of the danger of using the details of a person's private life to destroy him. It was done to us for hundreds of years, and it still happens, even today.

"Gore Vidal wrote about this destructive puritanism in 1985, in words which I think are singularly appropriate in 1998: "In order for a ruling class to rule," Vidal wrote, "there must be arbitrary prohibitions."

Sex, according to Vidal, can be turned into political weaponry, providing a fertile field for such arbitrary prohibitions, principally because it involves everybody.
vidal6.jpg - 30.55 K Gore Vidal

"To be able to lock up someone or deprive him of employment because of his sex life is a very great power indeed," Vidal said.

Kaiser deplored the values he saw in many of his present-day co-journalists' works:

"That's what this is--a return to the worst American tradition of sanctimonious, hypocritical puritanism. The press--especially the Washington press--has been an eager co-conspirator in a witch hunt conducted by a crazed prosecutor, and fomented by the most partisan and Neanderthal Congress we have witnessed since the days of Joe McCarthyism."

Kaiser made a direct appeal to his audience of colleagues:

"So if you believe, as I believe, that our first job as journalists is to tell the American people what really matters, some of you may also agree that right now we find ourselves in the middle of a mass hysteria.

"The decision of much of the press--sometimes it seems like everyone in the press, except for Russell Baker, Tony Lewis and Joan Didion--the decision to tell the American people that nothing is more important that the destruction of this president because of his sex life, is a betrayal of everything we as journalists ought to stand for.

"The idea that this president's behavior--stupid and reckless as it undeniably was--the idea that it is so important, that it deserves more attention than every other issue of our times--that idea, I believe, is simply ridiculous.

"I know, I know, some of you will say--it's not just about sex it's also about lying. And it is. But whether it's Vietnam, or arms for hostages, or a completely consensual relationship between two adults. And I believe that one of the most important reasons to be in this business is to make precisely that kind of judgement.

"It's not always easy to say things like this-- especially to colleagues who work in Washington. But I've always thought that pack journalism was the worst kind of journalism, and most of the reporters working on this story make up the most mindless pack of journalists I have ever witnessed in my life.

"This is a time to stand up for what we believe in; to stand up and be counted.

"Fifty years ago, George Orwell, the greatest English- speaking journalist of this century declared: "What does it matter to be laughed at? The big public, in any case usually doesn't see the joke, and if you state your principles clearly, and stick to them, it's wonderful how people come round to you in the end."

gaymetrop.gif - 15.33 K"That is my philosophy. I hope it will also be yours. Thank you very much.
At Your Bookstore:
Charles Kaiser's The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America Since World War II has just appeared in paperback. A Harvest Book Harcourt Brace & Company $14.00

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