Although I do not explicitly address partisan politics in this article, I want to disclose right at the start that three years ago, at my request, former senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri (which is, I have previously acknowledged, my home state) got me a baseball signed by Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ great right-hander. Actually, in the interest of absolutely full disclosure, I should say that I was obtaining the baseball as a bar mitzvah present for Jeb Lincoln Singer, of Pelham, New York. Senator Eagleton is, of course, a Democrat. Jeb Lincoln Singer can be considered an independent, I think, at least until he’s old enough to vote.
With my own interests plainly stated, I feel safe in trying to make some observations about the uneven enforcement of ethical standards by the press. Take the case of Dick Morris, who in my mind will forever be associated with that brilliant headline a British tabloid ran after the dismissal of a Tory minister who had similar sexual predilections: “TOE JOB, NO JOB.” (I should disclose here that at the gala evening celebrating the 75th anniversary of Time, my table was between Dick Morris’ table and Dr. Kevorkian’s table, miles from the stage, and that I may have remarked that we seemed to be in the section reserved for people Time had put on the cover but was slightly embarrassed at having around.)
Just before Morris was brought down by information Sherry Rowlands, the toe jobist in question, had sold to the Star, he got a couple of million dollars for a book he’d been secretly writing while he worked for Bill Clinton. At the time, I asked this question: If Random House paid Dick Morris for betraying the person he was working for and the Star paid Sherry Rowlands for betraying the person she was working for, why is Random House treated so much more respectfully in the press than the Star is?
The double standard that appeared to apply in the Dick Morris case also seemed present when Monica Lewinsky posed for a series of vamp-parody pictures in Vanity Fair. What, exactly, is the distinction between Penthouse trying to persuade some newly famous scandal-bimbo to pose for embarrassing pictures wearing no clothes and Vanity Fair trying to persuade Monica Lewinsky to pose for embarrassing pictures wearing expensive clothes?
I should disclose here that my wife, an uneasy flier who sometimes finds that reading frivolous gossip magazines can help her relax while on an airliner, used to read People during a flight and now is more likely to read Vanity Fair, which costs quite a bit more and often carries scented perfume ads whose aroma I find antithetical to the enjoyment of salted peanuts.
Also, I acknowledge having pointed out several years ago that the formula adopted by Vanity Fair in the ’80s (one serious piece every month about, say, the African drought, in a magazine that otherwise consisted mainly of celebrity profiles written in a style designed to make the reader feel part of the celebrity’s crowd) was, in essence, the formula invented by Playboy in the ’50s (one Irwin Shaw short story every month in a magazine devoted mainly to pictures of bare-breasted young women whose real names were included so that the reader could feel that these were people he could actually meet). I suggested the two magazines launch a co-venture called Celebrity Breasts.
Going back to the matter of double standards, why is it all right for authors of “nonfiction” books to write best-sellers that they admit are partly fictional, but not all right for newspaper columnists in Boston to write columns that are partly fictional, or writers at The New Republic to write articles that are largely fictional but more interesting than most other articles? (I should disclose here that I have occasionally repeated an observation, usually credited to Frank Mankiewicz, that The New Republic reads these days like “a Jewish Commentary.”) Also, why is it that the New Journalists who routinely put thoughts in the heads of people they wrote about were widely celebrated, but Joe McGinniss was universally vilified for putting quotation marks around what was supposedly in Ted Kennedy’s head? Was McGinniss guilty of overpunctuation?
I want to disclose here that the Alice Trillin who once suggested that journalists present invented material in a different color from what was not invented is my wife and the same person mentioned as reading irritatingly smelly magazines while I’m trying to enjoy my salted peanuts.
Also, if politicians can publish op-ed pieces written by their staffs, and all manner of people can publish books written by ghostwriters, why is it that reporters are required to write everything that appears under their names?
I want to disclose here that I bitterly resent having to write my own pieces and that I long for a staff of my own. Also, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I stand willing to repeat any or all of the above observations before the annual banquet of a trade association for big bucks–although only, of course, if that trade association’s interests do not present a conflict with my interests or the interests of Jeb Lincoln Singer, both of which have been fully disclosed.
Calvin Trillin’s latest book is Family Man(Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reprinted from Brill’s Content (Sept. 1998). Subscriptions: $11.95/yr. (10 issues) from 521 Fifth Av., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10175.