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Media Torn By Demands Of Audience

Dan McGuire

It has been a difficult month for journalists. We fabricate a few high-profile stories and you, the public, act like it's the end of the world. Correspondents who could be off creating even more interesting fabricated reports are instead stuck behind the anchor desk, talking in earnest tones about truth in media.

This whole "public accountability" premise is a sham. Fabricating stories isn't a bad thing. It's just bringing existing practice and understanding to an entirely new level. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There are two players in this game of truth and accountability. First, you have the media. Most people don't like the media, be it national or local. We're still trying to get Watergate-level material in an era when the world is less interesting and more complicated. Watergate is like Star Wars: anyone can understand its simple central message.

Modern issues are more complex. We, the media, are trying to turn Ken Starr's interminable Whitewater investigation into a titanic struggle between good and evil and it just isn't working out. Every morning, we camp outside of Starr's townhouse hoping that he'll say something damning, either about himself or about Clinton. That never happens. Instead, we get a lecture about the intricacies of property law from a guy in a bathrobe carrying two garbage bags full of coffee grounds and grapefruit rinds. This is not the stuff of All the President's Men, and it makes us in the media look like fools.

The second set of players in this intricate dance is the general public. By and large, you're a sorry lot, content to watch news-you -can-use - stories that sound like fifth grade science projects. While we're trying to deliver hard-hitting coverage from all corners of the earth, you're content to sit back and watch Three's Company reruns and eat Cheez Whiz. You only tune in when we've managed to take a big enough chunk out of somebody that there's blood in the water, like the CNN story about the government trying to kill defectors during the Vietnam war.

So, how to we get these two divergent sets of interests to gel? This gets back to my original point: we take our existing practice of fudging the facts and the sources to make the story a bit more interesting, and then go all the way with it. The media shouldn't be restrained to simply report what is true; it should be able to report anything it wants as long as it seems vaguely plausible. The definition of plausible will, of course, vary from market to market. The National Spectator should be able to report with absolute confidence that Bill Clinton is the anti-Christ because he wants to raise the capital gains tax. Conservatives everywhere will nod and mutter "I always thought so." Mother Jones will tell all three remaining liberals the almost-true story about the mind control devices corporate America implants in all senators. The New York Times can really let New Jersey have it over that Ellis Island thing. And everybody can expect the Monica Lewinsky case to get much more exciting.

So the public will be happy because they're getting stories that are not only interesting but also reinforce their existing prejudices. We in the media will be happy because we'll no longer have to do any time consuming interviews and because we'll be able to complete laying out our issues and taping our news programs weeks in advance. We'll also be in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature - to heck with those crummy Pulitzers. I return to a restatement of the old philosophical standby: the "tree in the forest" argument. If a newsman tells a lie, is it really a lie if nobody checks up on it?