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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Public Should Act as the Media's Ultimate Editor

September 25, 2004|Kathleen Miller | Kathleen Miller, a writer in San Juan Capistrano, has just completed her first novel.

It was a bad week for CBS. Was "60 Minutes" practicing unethical journalism by airing a segment Sept. 8 attacking George W. Bush's military record without authenticating the supporting documents? There's no debating that question now that CBS and Dan Rather have said they were misled and apologized for the broadcast. And are there questions as to whether someone with the program colluded with John F. Kerry's campaign? Until the evidence is on the table and the jury is in, we must be as careful as CBS should have been, or we are guilty of the same deed: engaging in unsubstantiated gossip.

Let's take a look at the real source of the tangled web that the media seem to weave themselves into more and more frequently. Americans claim to desire truth above all else, but we love gossip. We hunger for it at breakfast, lunch and dinner tables as we lean in to listen to the crucifixion of someone else's reputation with a casual "did you hear about ... ?"

Let's face it, for most of us, what might be true is usually more interesting than what is. And that's a problem. Even when we know it's just a rumor, we pass it on because it's something new to say, some way to be the center of attention, a way to lead the ratings.

When I taught a high school journalism class, the students often nagged me to let them run a story on something they'd heard was true about a faculty member or a fellow student, especially during student council elections. I told them that once you've put something in print, it's impossible to take back. The damage is done. To which they responded: "But nobody wants to read about a new gymnasium being built. That's boring!"

And what do we adults tune in to on television? Which authors soar to the Amazon bestseller list before their books are even available for purchase? With so many Kitty Kelleys revealing enticing information based on nothing truly substantial, and the label "unauthorized" becoming a selling tool, what can we expect from the media, which must stay competitive to survive? Reality is definitely less dramatic than what the reality might be.

Should CBS be responsible for its gross error? You bet. It will try to find every way to make good for the wrong it has done to regain credibility with viewers. But maybe this is really all about us, the viewers.

We need to question what we are told by the new American gods -- the media -- and not just accept what they tell us. They have the same appetite we do for a tidbit others don't know, because it's good for ratings. We need to accept the responsibility of sifting through the information and not just demand the sensational.

Remember the saying: "Just because you read it in the paper doesn't mean it's true"? Well, just because you saw it on television doesn't mean it's true.

And even though conjecture is what the media think we want to hear, maybe we should tell them that we will stop listening.

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