News - Gee whiz

Why worry about Iraq when we have American Idol'"

This time, the media has gone too far. The glut of voyeuristic photos ... the obsession over a minor controversy. It's downright un-American. And it's certainly in poor taste.

Hell, no! I'm not talking about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. I'm talking about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's coverage of "American Idol."

Just to make sure we weren't overreacting, we did a little research on the subject. Since Feb. 7, the AJC has run more than 90 articles about our lovely local "Idol" finalist Diana DeGarmo, and more than 80 photos.

Eighty friggin' photos! About a televised karaoke contest!

Last week alone there were five straight days of Diana's dimply visage on the paper's front page, usually accompanied by articles; on two of those days, Diana dominated the Living section. That's not just a case of the newspaper going overboard — it's a case of the newspaper going overboard at going overboard!

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of good work in the AJC. Day in and day out, there are examples of stellar reporting, writing and photography.

But the newspaper itself — long obsessed with stemming circulation declines by appealing to suburbanites and youth culture — amply displays a mass-media trend that's pretty scary for democracy. It's a lowest-common-denominator approach to news that amounts to throwing judgment out the window and worshiping instead at the alter of buzz. It amounts to avoiding any challenging exploration of whether something is a story or for treating a story with deep skepticism, but instead settling for a kind of harmless gut reaction: "Gee whiz!"

Most bothersome: The gee-whiz attitude bleeds through our obsession with pop into more significant issues, like the war in Iraq and election campaigns. Take, for example, last Thursday's AJC front page, published the morning after Diana — "teary but gracious in defeat" (of course!) — lost to Fantasia. "It's Fantasia!" declared the page's tallest headline, stripped above a photo of the two finalists hugging each other.

But a more troubling headline capped the lead story, just to the right of the "American Idol" photo: "Terrorists aim to hit U.S. soon," it said.

"Gee-whiz," any reader might think. "This is about the scariest news since 9/11." If you stopped and read the story's first sentence, however, you'd learn that the warning came from our controversial attorney general, John Ashcroft — rather than from any firsthand knowledge of the paper.

Buried deep in the story, in the 16th paragraph, was the revelation that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge didn't even plan to raise the nation's security alert in response to Ashcroft's warning. And the story didn't mention that Ashcroft is in the midst of pressing for stronger police powers. Or that he's generally the most alarmist administration official. Or that — as the New York Times reported Friday — both White House officials and key congressional Republicans are now saying Ashcroft's dire threat was overblown.

Of course, Ashcroft could turn out to be right this time. But a skeptical, rather than gee-whiz, approach to the story wouldn't have unquestioningly amplified his warning. It would treat his announcement skeptically, air contradictory opinions fairly and offer useful perspective.

It's not as if the people who lead the AJC don't understand that. "You want my job?" jokes Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff, moments before agreeing that both the headline and the Ashcroft story left something to be desired. His point was daily newspapers are imperfect creations cobbled together each evening by hundreds of people, each of whom has his or her own style and sense of priorities. And it's certainly easier to criticize such a complex undertaking than to do it well yourself.

But my point is that a newspaper's infatuation with "American Idol" (90-plus stories!), based on little judgment other than the sense that it's buzz, goes hand-in-hand with the poor judgment to trumpet a politician's self-interested terror warning as if it were the Holy Bible.

Another paper's mea culpa last week is a warning to all of us in the news biz. In an unusual memo, which came after an investigation of its own reporting, the New York Times acknowledged that much of its pre-Iraq war coverage, particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction, too wholly swallowed the administration's line.

"In ... reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation ... we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of," the newspaper said. "But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been."

The Times essentially admitted something obvious: That it, like most of the nation's mainstream media, helped the White House build a stronger case for the war than the facts supported. As a result, the American people were misled into backing a war that has proven a national disaster.

Anyone who read the Journal-Constitution during the lead-up to the war would have to come to a similar conclusion. While the editorial page offered qualified skepticism, the newspaper's front-page headlines repeatedly parroted White House warnings that Iraq was an immense threat to Americans — warnings that flew in the face of the firm facts available just beneath the surface.

The lesson applies to media consumers as much as it does to media purveyors: Should we learn from that recent history? Or should we go merrily on our way, trumpeting the "official" version of the truth without question while we divert most of our attention and our critical energy to "American Idol"?


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