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Flushing integrity down toilet

Matt Zalaznick

What a mess Newsweek has created for its colleagues in the beleaguered news business. The magazine’s Koran-flushing fiasco couldn’t have come at a worse time for an industry reeling from a series of scandals that has drawn withering (and sometimes valid) criticism from all sides. While the media was being skewered for its cuddly coverage of W.’s plans to invade Iraq, Jayson Blair, The New York Times’ arch-fabricator, knocked the country’s trust in the media down several pegs below three-card monty dealer. Then Dan Rather went out in a blaze of shoddily-sourced glory, and Armstrong Williams and several others went on the administration’s payroll, while TV news directors were bringing unedited propaganda directly from the government to you. The managers and editors of the nation’s most visible media have tremendous responsibility to stop screwing up. Readership and viewership of major media are in a nosedive. So it’s time to worry a little less about the scoop, and more about truth. Had the story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay been true, the world could have waited another week or two until Newsweek could confirm the second-hand and inflammatory anonymous allegation. Americans would have been able to live their lives just fine and free without this information. Newspapers and magazines should never sit on stories, of course, if it is something the public absolutely needs to know immediately – a smallpox outbreak or nuclear bombs sneaked across the border. Otherwise, the public can wait until next week’s issue or episode to gawk at yet another failure of the military’s penal system.Only in a hyperactive, hyper-saturated media world can a pope die twice. The strange thing is that fewer and fewer companies own the media. Competing with one’s self might be an incentive to be a little more cautious when pouring breathless headlines onto those eternally scrawling news tickers. The other night one of the 24-hour channels scrawled a tidbit that said an exotic disease could kill more than a million Hondurans, but that achievement in brevity was all the information they provided. Newsweek’s blunder has also given ammunition to an administration that’s shown its expertise at interfering with the free press. While the White House hasn’t yet asked for a spot on Newsweek’s editorial board (a popular practice in totalitarian regimes), the president’s press flaks are demanding puff pieces on the nations’ POW camps. What a terrific idea – make the gulags look good. That’s what the Nazis did with their showpiece concentration camp at Theresienstadt, where the Red Cross was invited to see how well the Jews were being treated. One would think a government that’s so without scruples about manipulating the media would have a better clue about public relations. A feature on the prison where Muslims are being held without being charged or without access to lawyers? How angry would Americans be if the Iraqi insurgents released a feel-good video about the cleanly safehouses where they decapitate American hostages? But it’s not the administration’s fault the media has lost its way. The news has been on a downhill slide ever since the O.J. chase, when instant drama finally conquered analysis and investigation. Things only got worse during and after Sept. 11, when fear became a favorite tool. Things aren’t going to change – the major media will continue to jump the gun, and continue to wallow in inaccuracy – until we as media consumers decide millions of Africans dying in Sudan is more important than getting instant updates on our camera phones about the latest non-event in the Michael Jackson trial. City Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com or 949-0555, ext. 606.Vail, Colorado


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