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Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Of All The Nerve
Hot Gas and the Putrid Stench of Decaying Journalism

It was, if nothing else, momentarily refreshing. When CNN/Time retracted their much touted and highly controversial serin gas story, the media were all over it, like a pack of army ants devouring an injured cockroach. Picking it to pieces, media "experts" around the globe solemnly commiserated on the heavy burden the beleaguered news behemoths now faced, and forewarned of a difficult path ahead. A journey imperative to restore the lost remnants of journalistic credibility. They forgot just one thing. It was already lost, irreparably, before the story even broke.

While anchors on MSNBC, Fox News and the networks could barely contain their glee as they dutifully and earnestly reported the retraction, CNN anchors looked pitiful, clearly aware that no matter what they reported, even the horrific Florida fires, sounded hollow and fabricated.

It wasn't too long ago, when Time Magazine, in a display of journalistic manipulation at its most sinister and ugly, darkened the face of an O.J. Simpson mug shot on a cover that drew stinging criticism from both the journalistic and black communities. Critics argued that the darkening of O.J. perpetuated media stereotypes that vilified blacks and that subliminally paralleled a darker skin color with guilt and evil. Unfortunately for Time, Newsweek ran the identical picture on their cover the same week, only without the tone enhancements. The contrast on the newsstands and at supermarket checkouts across the country was a startling, weeklong lesson that drove home a fundamental and unflinching message. Don't trust the messenger.

The July 3, 1995 Time/Carnegie Mellon porn-study scandal was yet another Time Magazine blunder. This time the journalistic abomination centered on a study done by a lowly and not particularly intelligent undergraduate named Martin Rimm. Under the salacious header "Cyberporn," Time editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt published, and gave unreasonably undue attention to, what turned out to be a fraudulent study on pornography, replete with academic accolades and a provocative cover showing a doctored image of a child staring with unbridled horror into a computer monitor,

"It was Elmer-DeWitt's reputation for clear and accurate discussions of complex topics that led an interdisciplinary group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to offer their study of online porn first to TIME," touted the newsweekly. Even after the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Donna Hoffman, a professor at Vanderbilt University, challenged the methodology and findings of the Rimm study to Elmer-DeWitt well before the story went to press. This all took place before the inevitable commercialization of the Internet, and before media companies like Time Warner had become entrenched in the medium. Their ability to elicit cyberporn hysteria was fortuitous, as the Internet represented an enormous threat to their talking heads and colored ink. And perhaps they realized that fear; censorship and the prohibition of nudity would save their readers from accessing naked emperors - hired by Time Warner.

JonBenet, Andrew Cunanan and Princess Diana filled the journalistic wasteland before the final bullet between the eyes of journalism was fired by a grammatically impaired, ignominious halfwit, Matt Drudge, and the odious Monica Lewinsky gutter coverage that followed in his wake, and from which it is likely we will never transcend.

What is most significant about these increasingly common and euphemistically coined journalistic transgressions is the severity and impact that they have - half-hearted apologies and the occasional retraction notwithstanding. The renewed belligerence by Saddam Hussein, the ominous relationship between India and Pakistan, or the brazen bombing of embassies in Africa are not indicative of a Whitehouse in crisis, as MSNBC would have us believe. They are the result of a media crisis, more ominous and deadly than any car bomb or homicidal serial killer. An opportunity for any renegade terrorists or diplomatically seasoned hypocrites to justify, exploit and abuse the purulent trash that is offered and packaged in the name of journalism. News as we know it will never be the same again.

With profuse apologies to Georges Clemenceau, contemporary journalism is to journalism what military music is to music. From the Boston Globe to The New Republic, the increasingly frequent accusations of plagiarism, uncorroborated and factually inaccurate dissemination of information and journalistic depreciation are becoming as common as the latest sports scores. Even attempts to mask the garbage in a cloak of legitimacy are half-hearted at best. Quality is all but a distant memory.

On the ugly, stinking march toward the death of journalism, the setting of standards and ethics by the likes of Wolf Blitzer or Tom Brokaw and their self-aggrandizing ilk, indicates with no uncertainty that we have not just reached the grave - we are wallowing in its filth.


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