BOB GARFIELD: Reporters have two default settings: their reflexive reactions to everything that happens in the world is to be skeptical and critical. So when a journalist actually speaks favorably about somebody, particularly an elected official, the antennae of fellow members of the press shoot up, suspecting naivete or worse, such as an ulterior motive. Joining us now to discuss this is Joe Klein, a staff writer for the New Yorker and the famous formerly "anonymous" author of Primary Colors. His latest bit of work is a non-fiction book titled The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. Joe, welcome to On the Media.
JOE KLEIN: Good to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You said recently the hardest story to sell an editor or get into a publication is a positive story about a politician.
JOE KLEIN: Well I was talking about changes in the business of journalism over the 33 years that I've been a practitioner, and I think it's one of the big changes. It was a consequence of Vietnam and Watergate of course, but over time the safest sale has been a negative sale. If you-- if you write negatively about a politician you're a member in good standing of the tribe, but when you write positively, especially during a campaign, you are considered to be in the tank. In the year 2000 when I covered the presidential campaign for the New Yorker, I conducted a small thought experiment. I decided to see how positively I could write about the various candidates and still be able to look myself in the mirror. As a consequence, I was accused of [LAUGHS] being in the tank to George W. Bush, to Bill Bradley and to John McCain which represents a, you know, a wide range of ideologies. I'm kind of embarrassed that I wasn't accused of being in the tank to Al Gore, but I could tell you a lot of wonderful things about him too. Our natural -- as you said, our natural default position should be skepticism. It should not, however, be cynicism. And over the last quarter century we've slipped from skepticism to cynicism.
BOB GARFIELD:All right now, ever the reflexively skeptical journalist that I am, I still have the question -- do you happen to be conveniently bringing up this subject just because your book is a very charitable view of the Clinton administration?
JOE KLEIN: Well first of all my book isn't a very charitable view; it's a balanced view of the Clinton administration. I give him hell where he deserves it -- but I've been on this campaign for a long, long time! I mean I really do believe that we pose a significant threat to democracy the way we're currently going about covering politics! I think it's made the public a lot more cynical. I think it's driven a lot of worthy people who are interested in running for office away from it. And I think that a hundred years from now when people look back on this time, they're going to look back on it the way we look back on-- the Salem Witch Trials!
BOB GARFIELD:Okay. Did you see the series by Bob Woodward about what went on in the White House during the course of 9/11 and the early weeks of the war?
JOE KLEIN: Yes, I did.
BOB GARFIELD: I think you'll probably agree with me to say that it was, if not an uncritical look at the administration, certainly a sympathetic one, and I think that almost all involved were portrayed in a most flattering light.
JOE KLEIN: I think that the most clever response to that was from Mickey Kause [sp?] who I suppose you'd call a para-journalist and what he did was to just cull out the interesting anecdotes. He, he described them as "stray turnips and carrots in a watery soup." There were some really interesting and telling anecdotes in the course of all that tree-killing -- treacly tree-killing -- but you know I'm not going to go, go absolutely crazy over this sort of coverage and accept--
BOB GARFIELD: I'm just asking you if you rolled your eyes.
JOE KLEIN:Oh-- you know, occasionally, sure! But I r--also rolled my eyes, continually, when the New York Times did that huge investigation of Chinese nuclear spying which they later had to retract! I mean is it possible to roll your eyes while they're glazing over? You know, I think that there are excesses on both sides, but I think the preponderance of excesses are on the side of negativity!
BOB GARFIELD:Would you rather live in a world where all journalists were cynical bastards just looking for a kill or in a world where they just were looking for something nice to say about the politicians, because, by golly they're public servants and they're just doing the best they can.
JOE KLEIN: Well you know what? Good thing life isn't a binary proposition like the insides of computers, because both of those alternatives are unacceptable and both of them would lead to disaster. But if you back me up against a wall and said it's one of the other, Bub-- I would say cynical bastards every time.
BOB GARFIELD: That's the answer I was looking for. Joe Klein, thank you very much.
JOE KLEIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Joe Klein is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His latest book, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, is published by Doubleday and available in a fine bookseller near you.
by Branford Marsalis Trio