News Hounds

Coverage of Monday's plane crash shows that journalism has gone to the dogs.

The question being pondered these days is how much we, as a nation, have changed since September 11. If you watch enough TV and/or read enough newspapers, I'm certain that you've been convinced that the change is widespread and profound.

I'll be honest; I haven't changed a bit. I still like fried chicken. I still drive giddily all over Southern Arizona to watch my kids play sports. (My son broke his wrist in the middle of football season and I drove to Casa Grande and Sierra Vista to watch him stand!) I eat badly, don't get enough sleep and watch too much TV. I just consider it doing my part to get America back to normalcy. It's like that classic comedy routine when Lucille Ball was dressed like Harpo Marx and pretending to be his mirror image. They mimicked each other perfectly until one spun around and landed with a "Ta-Daa!" while the other simply did the "Ta-Daa!"

I'm just doing the "Ta-Daa," and when y'all get back, you'll just think I beat you to the spot. Unfortunately, the media will have beaten us both.

This all became clear when some college student called me up to interview me for a class assignment. He was very polite and tried to convince me that he had chosen me. What, did they make you pick last? Was that poor woman who does the weather on the WB already taken?

I spoke to him just a couple hours after the plane crashed in New York City on Monday. I had watched the media whores climbing all over each other like lemmings and I was pretty hot. During a pregnant pause, I started asking the kid questions. What did he think happened with that plane? Where would his journalistic tendencies take him first? Is it better to get the story first or to get it right?

On the last one, he stuttered a bit as he said, "I know the correct answer would be to get it right, but in the real world, it's important to get it first."

The kid will probably go far in what passes for the world of journalism these days.

Indeed, it had been an orgy of calculated words and innuendo those first few hours. They were careful not to state categorically that the crash involved terrorism, but they also made darned sure that they used the word "terrorism" as many times in a sentence as they possibly could without it sounding like they were involved in some bizarre parlor game.

"We checked with the terrorism agents in the government's top anti-terrorism units, and while terrorism hasn't been confirmed as a cause, neither has terrorism been ruled out by those anti-terrorism guys in the anti-terrorism bureau. Back to you, Peter. (Pause.) Terrorism."

After watching a half-hour or so of that nonsense, I had to take my son to basketball practice. On the way some radio moron jumped in with a report that an FBI source said there had been an explosion on board the plane. (That's almost certainly not true.)

When I got back home, it was more of the same. Talking heads who had probably majored in polisci in college while getting by on their looks were now openly speculating as to why the plane's engine was in one location, the fuselage in another and the tail in Jamaica Bay. A rudimentary understanding of physics could have explained all that away, but physics isn't nearly as sexy as terrorism.

Oh, yeah, they also went out of their way to let us know that it was "only one day after the two-month anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy." What the hell does that mean?

As the day wore on and the truth became clear, they all did a pretty decent job of back-pedaling, but the damage had been done. While they were all running around whispering "terrorism," they should have been doing their damn jobs. How about checking on why the stock market plummeted hundreds of points? Who programmed those computers to sell on even the slightest word of any bad news?

I saw some jerk on TV who tried to make it seem that the public panics and sells. When a plane crashes, some teacher in Nebraska isn't going to call her broker and order him to sell. It's a handful of big shots who want to cover their butts and make sure that their several billions of dollars don't become just a few billions of dollars. So they use program trading to hedge their bets and, dare I say, to profiteer during troubled times. They've convinced themselves that by becoming mega-rich, they're somehow doing America a favor. In a time of heroes and villains, they certain don't align with the former.

Perhaps the media should have been focused on that instead of showing incessant shots of houses on fire. But that would take work and research and brainpower.

I talked this over with a friend of mine who actually teaches some journalism classes. He said that it is important to be first. I asked him, if that's true, why do people still read Time and Newsweek, which offer clear and in-depth reports on news events days and often weeks after the fact?

Amazingly, the next day USA Today ran an editorial praising the national media for its restraint. They even singled out NBC's Katie Couric for going out of her way to keep the specter of terrorism at bay. What, we're now praising people for not screwing up?

The other night on The West Wing, a White House reporter (played by Michael O'Keefe) came across a quote that could have been very embarrassing to the Administration. When he told the press secretary that he wasn't going to run it, she incredulously asked, "Why not?" He replied, "Because it's not news."

I thought I had switched to the SciFi Channel by mistake.

I've always despised Rush Limbaugh for his ranting against the media and trying to paint it as a monolithic entity with a left-wing agenda.

Rush, you're still an idiot. They don't have an agenda; most of them are just really bad at what they do.

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