Petersons, Plagiarism, and Pandas 

The state of American journalism has sunk to new depths.

Whew! Glad that's over. The war in Iraq, I mean. Now we can get back to what's really important: Who killed Laci Peterson?

To be sure, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated, there is still some "untidiness" to deal with in Iraq, but that's yesterday's news. It's not like we can expect the networks to embed reporters with troops that are trying to restore electricity or stop looters or guard museums. How boring. Rebuilding a country from scratch just doesn't make for very good television. And after all, the POWs are home. It's time to move on.

Besides, didn't you hear? They found Laci Peterson's body!

It pains me to say this, but American television journalism has never been in worse shape. Our cable news networks have been permanently "O.J.-ed" into a relentless pattern: devoting weeks of coverage, analysis, and second-guessing to spectacular crime cases. The war in Iraq was only an interruption, a brief respite separating the Elizabeth Smart case (formerly the most important story in America) from the Peterson case. The war was good for the networks only as long as they could show combat scenes. Without footage of explosions or firefights, it appears at this point that there will be little coverage of the world's most important ongoing story.

How did we get to this point? The obvious answer is money. The media are no different from any other large corporations these days, answerable to their boards and stockholders for a profitable bottom line. The higher the ratings, the higher the rates that can be charged to advertisers. It's simplistic, certainly, but the evidence is hard to deny.

The most distressing aspect of all this is how it now colors the coverage of the news. Despite the Fox network's absurd claim of being "fair and balanced," its flag-waving jingoism made for stellar ratings numbers. This was not surprising, since most polls showed 70 percent of Americans supported the war. In short order, we saw MSNBC and CNN make adjustments. MSNBC quickly came up with an imitation Bill O'Reilly, the equally smug Joe Scarborough ("Scarborough Country"). The truth had become obvious: Run too many stories about dead and wounded Iraqis, misguided cluster bombs, or friendly-fire investigations and ratings go down. Offer liberal-bashing hosts with stories about inspirational POW rescues, happy Iraqi children greeting coalition soldiers, and surgically exploding buildings, and everybody's happy. Or at least 70 percent of us are.

Of course, all of the stories cited above were part of the fabric of the war and all warranted coverage. But the American people did not get the full story -- and still aren't. The media were criticized and demonized from the top down. Rumsfeld's bizarre facial contortions made his disdain for tough queries from reporters quite obvious. But asking the tough questions is the media's most important function in our democracy. If reporters don't ask them, who will? Certainly not Joe Scarborough. The more important issue: If asking tough questions-- and reporting the truth, no matter how "un-American" it may be perceived -- results in lower ratings for television networks, will the networks stop asking them?

John Branston's City Beat column in the Flyer last week documented rampant and ongoing plagiarism at the Tri-State Defender. It was a hard-hitting story, but the facts were undeniable: Under the byline of Larry Reeves, the Defender ran dozens of plagiarized stories taken from newsweeklies around the country over the past few years. When confronted by the evidence, owner Thomas Picou and publisher/editor Marzie Thomas claimed they had never met Larry Reeves, never paid him, and didn't know where he was, even though his byline has appeared in the paper 142 times since 1995. Picou speculated that Reeves might be an 80-year-old white guy.

In an editorial "reponse" (yes, response was misspelled in the headline), the newspaper labeled the Flyer story an "attack on the African-American community" and claimed that they were "not the culprit, but rather the victim."


Sorry, folks, but you are the culprits and your readers are the victims. Branston's follow-up column this week (page 9) makes it clear something is very rotten at the Tri-State Defender.

It's all very distressing. None of us in the media are perfect, but the evidence grows that the Fourth Estate is in an increasingly bad state, pandering to popular tastes, wasting valuable air-time and column inches on cheerleading and fluff at the expense of real reporting. It may help the bottom line, but journalism is supposed to be about more than that.

Oh well, I guess I should look on the bright side. It's Panda Week, after all.

Bruce VanWyngarden is editor of the Flyer.

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