A Few Buttons Missing?

By RJI on July 8, 2009 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

It was Samuel Goldwyn who first noted that “anybody who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”

But just going to a psychiatrist is easy. Practicing psychiatry—or, more accurately, simply trying to figure out whether somebody is bonkers—is enough to drive a person out of his or her mind, especially if he or she has neither a license nor formal training in the field.

Precisely the position several journalists have found themselves in these last few weeks thanks to Governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Let us quickly acknowledge, in the interest of both fairness and sanity, that there is no connection whatever between the activities and/or statements of the two Republican governors.

Sanford has not quit, at least not yet.

Palin has not…(well, let’s not get into the details here), at least as far as we know.

But in both cases their actions were, at the very least, strange.

Fun to cover, in a way, but strange behavior on the part of public officials also puts reporters and their bosses in an awkward position. Few journalists have much training in psychology, much less any knowledge of psychiatry.

Aside from tossing around a few terms that have wormed their way into the general conversation (anal retentive; obsessive-compulsive disorder), and then probably tossing them around without knowing precisely what they mean, a typical reporter knows no more about the inner workings of the mind than he knows about the earth’s molten core or the Upanishads.

So a certain amount of humility is in order when judging an elected official’s mental stability. Even the pros say it’s irresponsible to diagnose without examining the patient.

And, no, going to a press conference doesn’t count.

On the other hand, there’s this elected official being weird; in one case talking on and on about his many minor amours and one major peccadillo, in the other abruptly quitting her job with in incomprehensible explanation. How can a responsible reporter possibly ignore the question of whether either Governor is entirely in control of his or her self, if not in his or her right mind?

Just reporting the facts and getting the quotes right, without raising the possibility that either governor might not be playing with a full deck risks carrying the ideal of responsibility to the point of irresponsibility. Readers, listeners, and viewers have seen the peculiar press conferences, or at least parts thereof. Inquiring minds want to know: Has the Gov gone round the bend? Reporters have to deal with that.

For the most part, reporters (as opposed to columnists) chose to deal with it simply by quoting what the governors had to say, and in some cases quoting other politicians or observers suggesting that the governor was acting in a rather peculiar manner.

That transmits the suggestion that the Gov may have lost his/her marbles without the reporter actually venturing a diagnosis.

On the basis of an admittedly imperfect perusal of the coverage, the suggestion was transmitted much more in Palin’s case than in Sanford’s. Perhaps he showed fewer signs of dippiness. Or maybe it’s just that there were other, more interesting, angles to the Sanford story.

Sex, for instance.

One might have thought, though, that when a governor acts in a manner that is peculiar and at least arguably immature, that some reporter would have mentioned that in May of 2004, after the Legislature over-rode his budget vetoes, he brought several live pigs into the chamber of the state’s House of Representatives.

If nothing else, this would have demonstrated that something other than eros can inspire peculiar and arguably immature behavior.

As noted by several commentators, including Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times, Sanford was lucky. The news world can deal with only so many obsessions at a time, and the deaths of Farah Fawcett and (especially) Michael Jackson stepped on the Sanford story before it had run its natural course.

In her column, Daum did describe Sanford’s tell-all (well, it turned out to be only tell-some) press conference as “rambling, noticeably unscripted and rather bizarre.” But that’s description, not diagnosis.

That distinction was maintained by most coverage of Palin’s resignation. The Associated Press story by Rachel D’Oro concentrated on the political impact, as did the next day’s AP analysis by Philip Elliott.

“Abrupt and unscripted,” was how Elliott described the resignation, and he quoted former McCain campaign advisor John Weaver calling her move “curious.” By and large, though, Elliott’s story stuck to the subject of Palin’s political potential.

So did the New York Times, in both its Saturday news story by Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg, and Nagourney’s analysis the next day. Times readers had to wait until Sunday to see even the slightest hint that Gov. Palin might not be all there.

Well, OK, ‘slightest hint” is something of an understatement. In her Sunday column, Maureen Dows waited all the way until her second sentence before declaring Palin “one nutty puppy.”

If some of the reporters were arguably too careful in refusing to mention the possibility of loopiness, Dowd’s bluntness more than made up for their timidity. Perhaps more than anyone, she could manage. If she didn’t exactly invent the personalization of political coverage, she certainly took it to new heights.

Or depths, some say. But here she pulled it off, by piggy-backing on someone else’s reporting, almost as impressive as if she had done her own. The someone else was former Timesman Todd Purdum, author of a profile of Palin in the latest Vanity Fair.

“Several (politically knowledgeable Alaskans) told me, independently of one another,” Dowd quoted Purdum, “that they had consulted the definition of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — ‘a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy’ — and thought it fit her perfectly.”

This is reporting, but in all candor it is not the kind of reporting with which an old-fashioned reporter feels entirely comfortable. Forget the anonymity of the sources. That doesn’t add to the comfort level, but Purdum is considered an honorable reporter. Let’s assume some Alaskans told him what he says they told him.

Let’s even assume that “several” people actually went to the trouble of consulting that Manual of Mental Disorders. Not most folks casual reading. But if they were concerned enough about their governor’s behavior, they might have headed to the library (or the Internet) to have a look.

Still, these are the diagnoses of amateurs. There is no reason to think they know when a person has a ‘narcissistic personality disorder,’ if, indeed, they know precisely what one is.

On the other hand, isn’t a reporter who ignores evidence of bizarre behavior of elected officials just as irresponsible as a reporter who tries to check out that behavior with an authoritative source? Think of the pain the country might have been saved had one of the journalists who covered Richard Nixon’s famous “last press conference” in 1962 wondered whether Nixon was bonkers. He was.

And casual dismissal of Palin’s possible narcissism got harder on Sunday, when she said on her web site, according to the AP, “though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make."

Countless others? Just who did she have in mind? Bob Dole quit the Senate in 1996, but not until he had wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination. Ronald Reagan ran for president as an ex-Governor of California, but after he had served two full terms. No one else comes to mind. I don’t know enough to say whether this is evidence of narcissism. Clearly, though, it is evidence of both ignorance and self-aggrandizement (which may or may not be just the common term for narcissism.)

It isn’t easy for reporters to speculate on the mental health of the people they cover. It should be done carefully. But sometimes, perhaps, it has to be done.