Media are short-sheeting their own bed in effort to create controversy

September 08, 1998|By Bill Thompson

THE DAY WILL surely come when the public will wash its hands of the news media, when the people who pay our salaries by reading, by watching, by buying our advertisers' products will purge us from their lives.

The day will come when the paying customers will just plain tune out the media. They might scream that they're mad as heck and they aren't gonna take it anymore. Or maybe they'll toss the newspaper into the trash, shut off the TV news and quietly go about their business, never giving us so much as another moment's thought.

Blaming the messenger

When it happens, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. We can whine about the audience blaming the messengers for bad news, but the fact is that we too often deliver messages that the audience doesn't want to hear. The customers are fed up with scandals that have no bearing on their lives, with news reports reflecting a point of view that is foreign to their day-to-day concerns and interests.

How many different ways can the American people say they don't care about President Clinton's sexual shenanigans before the media get the point? How many different ways must the public voice its disgust with sleazy "gotcha" journalism before the nation's journalists realize that it's time to reconsider their priorities?

The sad legacy of the brilliant Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein appears to be an obsession with scandal -- real or imagined. Where no scandal exists, some ambitious news hound will create one.

The Clinton-haters who scream for the president's head on a platter will dispute this, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal owes as much to the hype and manipulation of the media as it does to the reckless misconduct of the president and the relentless pursuit of Mr. Clinton by an independent prosecutor.

According to a detailed account published in the August issue of Brill's Content magazine, the scandal grew out of a curious alliance: ex-Lewinsky friend Linda Tripp; book agent and Tripp confidante Lucianne Goldberg; the independent counsel's office; lawyers representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against the president -- and Newsweek magazine.

The scandal that some say could drive Mr. Clinton from the White House began more or less as a quest for a juicy news story.

From the beginning, the story has run far ahead of the facts. The traditional purpose of a news story is to report what has happened; this story is a prophecy clamoring for self-fulfillment.

Once upon a time, the media would report some facts, and if the public found the facts to be sufficiently outrageous, a scandal would ensue.

Now the media declare that a scandal exists, with or without facts to support it, and for all practical purposes command the public to be indignant.

The process has been turned upside down. No one is safe from it.

Fanning the flames

A few days ago, baseball star Mark McGwire was enjoying unanimous acclaim and universal admiration as he pursued the record for most home runs in a season. Then a reporter decided to invent a scandal by revealing that the once injury-prone McGwire uses a dietary supplement to bolster his strength and durability.

Never mind that the supplement is perfectly legal; that experts say there is no evidence that it artificially enhances athletic performance; that major-league baseball has no rules against its use; that Mr. McGwire's fitness-trainer brother recommended the supplement as part of an overall fitness program.

There was no reason in the world to report the information except to create controversy. And once the story broke, the media latched onto it as if they'd caught Mr. McGwire romancing Monica Lewinsky.

So now, through no fault of Mr. McGwire's, the media are doing their best to deflate the excitement and enjoyment of baseball fans as they root for Mr. McGwire to break the home-run record. Carve another notch on the media's "gotcha" club.

And mark the calendar as well. The media are one day closer to the day when the customers decide to purge us from their lives.

Bill Thompson is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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