Degrees of Sleaze

The problematic presumptions of ‘narrative neutrality’

Context clues: Following the reelection of Alfonse Marcello D’Amato—the last Republican to represent New York in the US Senate, a politician known as Senator Sleaze—Navasky, writing in the January/February 1993 issue, questioned the role that journalistic “objectivity” may have played in the success of D’Amato’s campaign.

In the aftermath of New York Senator Al D’Amato’s 51-49% victory over Attorney General Robert Abrams, who started with a 15-20% lead in the polls in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to two and most voters agree with Abrams on his two key issues—health care and choice—the punditocracy weighed in: Abrams lost because he ran the all-time abysmal campaign (he did); because an embittered Geraldine Ferraro, angry at Abrams’s primary attacks on her alleged links to organized crime, waited until seconds before election day to endorse him (she did); because four out of ten Jews defected from traditional Democratic ranks to support the Italian-American senator who billed himself as Israel’s and the Crown Heights Hasidim’s best friend (they did); because for better or worse many blacks were still upset with Abrams over his 1984 handling of black teenager Tawana Brawley’s charge that she had been raped (they were); because D’Amato’s television budget was $5 million richer than Abrams’s (it was); and because D’Amato managed to persuade a respectable number of Italian-Americans that an Abrams throw-away line about his being a fascist was in fact an anti-Italian slur—a feat semioticians if not campaign strategists and spinsters will be scrutinizing for years to come (or at least they should).

Let us stipulate all of the above. But let us consider another factor—one frequently overlooked in campaign post mortems—the influence of journalism on the events journalists are supposed to be covering. I’m not talking about journalistic bias, but about its supposed antidote: the convention of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) that is supposed to insulate a reporter’s reports from any bias or prejudice he/she might harbor: narrative neutrality. According to this convention, editorializing is for editorialists, interpretations are for writers of essays labeled “News Analysis,” and opinions are for columnists or journals of opinion. Reporters are supposed to stick to reporting.

But what if this universally accepted convention has a hidden impact? Suppose, for example, that in the New York senate race it accounted for a shift in, say, 1 percent of the vote (and I think it did), then we have an embarrassing situation. Mainstream journalists, who pride themselves on their non-involvement and would be the first to declare their commitment to balance, fairness, and the ideal of objectivity, may have literally determined the outcome of the race they were reporting. What’s worse, by adhering to apparent narrative neutrality they may have unintentionally deprived their readers/viewers of critical data, and thereby helped elect the “wrong” man (wrong in the sense that, had the voters but known, many of them would have gone the other way).

Let me explain. Going into the campaign, Senator D’Amato had one overriding vulnerability. It was generally believed that, while he might or might not be Senator Pothole (a champ at constituent services), he had earned the epithet Senator Sleaze. Journalists knew that while an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee (itself a significant smoke signal) did not find him guilty of law-breaking, his colleagues did conclude that he had conducted his office in an “improper and inappropriate manner.” They knew that he had testified as a character witness on behalf of one mobster and spoken with a U.S. attorney on behalf of another; that he had received illegal campaign contributions from the notorious Wedtech corporation, from another company whose payments to his brother Armand led to his brother’s indictment, and from a group of Puerto Rican HUD developers, whose case went to court even as the campaign was commencing. In fact, they knew by campaign time that there were five investigations of the senator pending, two of them criminal. As The New York Times, which had endorsed D’Amato last time out, put it in its editorial endorsing his opponent, “By his moral indifference . . . he has forfeited his claim to a third term.”

By contrast, Attorney General Abrams entered the race free of campaign finance scandal. The so-called Feerick Commission had criticized Abrams—along with every other top state official, including the governor—for taking campaign contributions from parties with business pending before state offices, but the working press consensus on the attorney general, who voluntarily changed his practice after the report came out, was that, although Abrams might be wimpy, he was “squeaky clean.”

The press well understood the moral, political, and factual difference between the granting of wholesale favors to shady and other characters in exchange for political contributions (the charge against D’Amato) and permitting the appearance of conflict of interest while granting no favors (the charge against Abrams). Nevertheless, by the time election day rolled around, voters who understood how the candidates differed on such matters as the death penalty, abortion, and government intervention in the economy, may be forgiven if they saw that, when it came to the issue of improper campaign funding, the candidates posed a Hobson’s choice. Since this issue was by common consent originally thought to be D’Amato’s Achilles’ heel, he deserves credit for neutralizing it through aggressive paid advertising and other campaign techniques. That he was able to get away with it, however, was at a minimum facilitated by the press convention of narrative neutrality.

Newsday’s accurate report of a heated exchange between the candidates on the Don Imus radio show was representative:

Both men have been hammering at each other’s character in negative ads and public statements throughout the campaign and the charged atmosphere continued yesterday as the two candidates refused to stop mudslinging unless the other did first.

D’Amato slammed Abrams for taking money from real estate developers involved in co-op conversions which he regulates. Abrams slammed D’Amato for using his Senate office to help contributors get government largesse . . .

Under the strictures of narrative neutrality it would have been unusual for either the Newsday reporter or Imus to pick and choose among competing allegations and try to set the reader/listener straight on who was lying about whom, not to mention more subtle matters of context, especially if it required the reporter/host to come down on behalf of one candidate or the other. The result of this he-said, he-said coverage—day in, day out, in print, on radio and television—created and reinforced an image of moral equivalence between the two candidates on one of the few issues on which there was a clear-cut moral (as distinguished from political) difference.

Although there are no data on the matter, one suspects that this infelicitous impression was not overcome by the rare editorial or “news analysis” which undertook to evaluate the competing claims of the candidates on the matter. For example, a pretty fair New York Times analysis of the claims, facts, distortions, and goals of the candidates’ paid advertising appeared on the Sunday before the election and included a section called “Muddying the Waters: Fund-Raising and Personal Ethics,” which took D’Amato to task for implying that the Feerick Commission had singled out Abrams for criticism and even added that one of the commissions members had later said that “it would have criticized Mr. D’Amato most harshly of all, but did not have the authority to review the conduct of federal officials.”

But such critiques, buried deep in the rare papers in which they appeared, couldn’t be expected to compete with the message-barrage contained in each day’s campaign coverage, perhaps best symbolized by WNBC-TV Gabe Pressman’s handling of the debate which closed the campaign on that same pre-election Sunday. “This will be a free-flowing debate,” Pressman announced. “I shall try to limit your responses with a stopwatch when necessary. You’ll be given the opportunity to rebut your opponent’s statement.” Pressman played the umpire, the referee, the moderator. He raised the campaign finance issue, framing it in the best traditions of balanced, fair, neutral journalism: “Gentlemen, you have both been charged with taking money from people who do business before your agencies. . . . ” The candidates took it from there.

Now, of course, it is always possible that a stronger candidate than Abrams would have hammered home the fact that D’Amato’s dubious fund-raising tactics bore little resemblance to his own—a fact that Pressman clearly understood (as his later interventions suggested) but couldn’t press without violating the ground rules of the occasion.

And it is even possible that a Donahue format with an aggressive moderator could guarantee that the viewers would at least know what he knows. Maybe if D’Amato’s record had been highlighted a majority would have still voted for D’Amato because they didn’t care about the ethics of campaign funding, and preferred him on the other issues. Maybe not. But this much I know: in the New York senate campaign a critical difference between the candidates was blurred, not because the reporters fell down on the job, but because they did their job according to the rules of the game. Perhaps it’s time to have another look at the rules of the game.

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Victor Navasky is publisher emeritus of The Nation and George T. Delacorte Professor Emeritus of Professional Practice in Magazine Journalism at Columbia University. He served as publisher and editorial director of The Nation; before that, he was the magazine’s editor. Previously, he was an editor at the New York Times magazine. His 1980 book Naming Names won a National Book Award for nonfiction. While on the Columbia Journalism School’s faculty, Navasky was a guiding force of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: Alfonse D’Amato, January 13, 1986; Photo by Douglas Kirkland/Corbis via Getty Images