LAST WEEK, AFTER PERUSING Newsweek’s cover story under the blaring headline “The New Infidelity … More Wives Are Cheating Too,” I decided not to renew my subscription.
The offending article relied on anecdotal evidence from women with no last names (“Erin, who is in her 40s…”), a few pathetic experts and pseudo-scientific surveys that even the authors admit are impossible to substantiate, conceding that “People lie to pollsters when they talk about sex, and studies vary wildly.” Too bad it didn’t run in Cosmopolitan, where at least the staged photos would have featured models wearing come-hither looks and little else.
Newsweek’s “scoop” is emblematic of the fatuous trend story, where any eye-catching theme — the less verifiable the better — merits a moment in the klieg lights. It’s all about the sweeping pronouncement, the bold prediction, the big idea, even if said idea is more porous than Sonny Corleone after Barzini’s gunmen got through with him.
The small downside to these amazing assertions is they often wind up being bogus, built on a prizefight mentality (“Reality TV is up! It’s down! No, wait, it’s up again!”) that myopically keeps score by punches thrown, not who’s standing when the bell sounds.
BY EXHALING this noxious formula, the media do more to undermine their credibility than any perceived liberal bias could, since the squandered trust bridges partisan lines. And while such stories are generally associated with television sweeps periods, the pressure to “make noise” has infected other platforms, including esteemed bastions of print that consider themselves above TV’s churlish excesses.
Intellectual dishonesty isn’t required to assemble such stories, but a little selective amnesia doesn’t hurt. This is especially true in covering popular entertainment, where the level of recycling mitigates against anything actually being “new,” “first” or “more than ever.” Frankly, even “biggest,” “best” and the always popular “increasingly” are usually valid only due to inflation.
Still, an explosion of journalistic outlets hungry to make their mark has heightened incentives to equate each new development with a seismic shift of the cultural barometer. The trend hunt thus becomes an integral part of events such as the in-progress TV critics tour, where a few similarly constructed medical shows can be transformed into a referendum on healthcare, as opposed to just the usual ripoffs of “CSI.”
Faced with a fragmented market and the desire to reach younger viewers and readers, ambitious producers and editors have little use for nuance and qualifiers. In such an environment, being behind the curve is worse than later being proven wrong, and being boring is the greatest sin of all.
Not surprisingly, this competitive zeal has a way of lowering the bar on what qualifies as a trend. Indeed, at times it seems as if TV’s latest cultural wave is whatever wisdom NBC Universal TV Group chief Jeff Zucker chooses to share with the ever-attentive New York Times that particular week.
TELEVISION SPURRED THIS SHIFT and remains the most notorious offender, but its influence is evident across a media landscape operating under the tyranny of the CNN ticker, where headlines must be terse, provocative and entertaining all at once.
Consider, for example, Los Angeles’ AM newsradio tandem KNX and KFWB, which once ladled out news straight, minus a stage show. Now under new management, KNX’s jazzed-up morning-drive team mimics local TV, as anchor Dave Williams reads home-mortgage ad copy, banters with chipper sidekick Vicky Moore and obnoxious sports guy Randy Kerdoon, and asks probing questions like, “I guess there’s no real answer to this, but if you had to speculate …”
Although print historically leads the headline-ripping electronic media, it’s also been a follower in this respect, frequently watering itself down in pursuit of attention. After all, hitting a single seldom lands a ballplayer on “SportsCenter,” and hedged analysis full of “maybes” isn’t anybody’s ticket to getting a story noticed by “This Week” or “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Of course, the good news is that memories run short, meaning someone will doubtless report an alternative view of reality TV or unfaithful wives — cheating is down, or perhaps it was never up — during the next slow news cycle. Heck, it might even be Newsweek.
If the magazine does please let me know. Because in a shocking, first-of-its-kind personal trend, Brian, in his 40s, won’t be reading it.