Sam Donaldson, Common Denominator (Ha, Ha)
Jude Wanniski
October 6, 1997

 

Memo To: Sam Donaldson
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Journalism

On "Live With Larry King" last Thursday night, you were on a panel discussing various news topics, including various celebrity and sex scandals, all of which you knew about in great detail. Also on the panel was Jack Kemp, who expressed regret that the show considered these "news topics" appropriate for him to take up. When pressed, he said he thought television journalism deserved very poor marks for its coverage of economic issues. Whereupon you wiggled your eyebrows gleefully, asking: "You mean, like the gold standard?" Ha, ha.

Well, that is exactly what Kemp is talking about, Sam. In the years I've been watching you in various video formats, I've come to the conclusion that you are really not a journalist at all. If you were, you would be one of the worst in the world, because the only issues you are prepared to discuss in any detail are those involving sex and celebrity scandals, and even there you fall far short of the expertise of the tabloid reporters. A journalist is supposed to represent his or her audience in gathering, reporting and commenting on the news which the audience does not have the time to do for itself. Whenever Kemp appears on a panel with you, you find a way to needle him about "the gold standard, ha, ha." Never have you expressed any interest in finding out what it is he has in mind. The same is true about other economic topics that require some small effort to grasp. You are simply not interested!

Tell me, really Sam: Do you know what a gold standard is? Do you know what a standard is? Do you know what money is? Do you know anything about the management of money and banking? Do you know anything of the history of money, and how various experiments with it have caused great suffering or great prosperity to ordinary people? Have you ever gone to the trouble of finding out what the Federal Reserve does, or tries to do? Do you know about open-market operations? Do you know about monetary reserves? Monetary aggregates? Do you know how exchange rates are determined? Do you know how interest rates are determined? Do you know what the federal funds rate is? Do you know about the discount rate? Do you know what monetarism is? Did you ever hear about the 'gold window,' and what it is or was? Do you have a preference for fixed or floating exchange rates, and can you tell me why? Do you understand why changes in tax policy may force changes in monetary policy? Have you heard of the concept of the 'demand for money,' and just what it is, and how and when it should be accommodated?

These are questions that just scratch the surface on issues that are at the heart of almost all public policies, because money is central to everything we do in the civilized world. The concept of the dollar flits through our brain cells every day more than any other concept, including celebrity and sex, as it is a unit of account central to the myriad planning decisions every human being makes in the course of a day. Yet you know almost nothing about it. In your more than 30 years in the news business, you have only taught yourself to wiggle your eyebrows, and say "gold standard," and expect your audience to chuckle along with you, knowing your guest must be wacko.

No, Sam, you are not a journalist and never will be. The reason for your great success on television is that you work hard to remain as close to being the average man as you can be. You are Farmer Donaldson in overalls, or the short-order cook in the town diner, or the barber who collects an interest in the world around him while snipping away. If you worked at being a journalist instead of representing the purest form of the conventional wisdom at the level of a common denominator, you would be just another one of the crowd. I think of the niche that the late Tiny Tim carved out with his ukelele, how he made it work for him through an entire career, and how hopeless he would have been if he tried to entertain us with violin solos.

No, I'm not going to complain about you, Sam. Keep right on doing the ha-ha on the gold standard, Reaganomics, tax cuts for the rich, etc. Do not make any effort to find out what you are talking about, or your audience will turn against you. They want you just as you are.