On Feb. 6, U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards spoke at an annual dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation. The speech, intended to be humorous, fell flat, or so some journalists say. That kind of performance normally gets a line or two in the article about these occasions.
That would have been the end of it, but a couple of reporters, Rachael Bade of Politico and Nikki Schwab of U.S. News, decided Edwards’ performance was an indictable offense that could not go unpunished. Both did articles on Edwards herself that roasted her as though she were a modern Vlad the Impaler.
Bade’s article appeared under the headline “The most painful speech ever.” The young reporter apparently is unaware of the speech Bill Clinton made nominating Michael Dukakis for president at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. In 4,000 words, according to one press account, Clinton’s “reputation as a stellar orator took a dive. He ignored flashing red lights. He ignored a nudge from House Speaker Jim Wright. He ignored impatient shouts from the floor. … He got his warmest applause for this phrase: ‘In conclusion …’.”
And four years later Clinton became president. Savvy political reporters take bad speeches in stride or put them in context. The context in this case would include Edwards’ record of working on the Skylab project at Lockheed, founding the National Network to End Domestic Violence and helping get the Violence Against Women Act enacted. But that kind of reporting would also include professionalism — and a certain level of empathy.
The incident fit into what I’ve argued to friends is a trend of this society becoming coarse and common. There was a time when the notion of hurting public figures just for the sake of hurting them was rare, and stood out from the rest of public life. There was, for instance, the “worst dressed persons list.” It was invented in 1954 by actor Robert Newton, best known for playing Long John Silver in a couple of “Treasure Island” movies.
Newton died a couple of years later and the idea was taken up by Richard Blackwell, a supposed fashion designer who became better known for the list than for any of his designs. As one of the characters on “Designing Women” put it, he would crawl out from under a rock once a year.
But his kind of shtick was uncommon. Today there are Blackwells everywhere.
There is Ann Coulter, who said of Sept. 11 widows, “I have never seen people enjoying their husbands’ death so much” and has called Barack Obama a “retard.”
There is Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, commander of ArmyRanger Pat Tillman, an atheist who was killed by friendly fire, prompting Kauzlarich to say, “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt.” Kauzlarich also said of members of Tillman’s family who tried to end the cover-up of how he died, “These people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs.” In Kauzlarich’s mind, neither believers or atheists could win.
There’s Judy “Judge Judy” Sheindlin of the United States, speaking in Australia about needle exchange programs: “Give them all dirty needles and let them die.”
There’s Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam L. Ponder of Texas who suggested that African-Americans and Latinos are automatically proof of drug crimes: “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you — a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, ‘This is a drug deal’?”
And you’ve got a U.S. Supreme Court that winked at Ponder’s conduct.
Then there is listmaking, a modern way of inflicting personal pain on public figures. “Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies.” “24 Famous People Who Couldn’t Stop Eating and Got Fat.”
What kind of journalist would participate in intentionally hurting people? It’s appalling how many news entities have jumped on the bandwagon of stalking celebrities for photo features of famous people without makeup. One website specializes in such offenses: “Actors Nobody Cares About Anymore.” “25 Old Celebrities You Didn’t Realize Are Still Alive.”
There was a time when this kind of thing would stand out in pop culture. Today it fits in.
Of course, they are not the principal offenders. The members of their audiences are. That’s us.
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.