TV’s year of shaken trust

In “Champagne for Caesar,” a prescient 1950 comedy, a know-it-all professor throws the big question on a popular quiz program. Flash forward to Ken Jennings’ record-breaking run on “Jeopardy!” and suspicions — which some conspiracy-minded types stated to me as plain fact — that its finish was equally choreographed, ending as it did on the penultimate night of the November sweeps.

Welcome to the Manipulation Nation, an America where seeing is no longer believing — the motto having become, “In God We Trust … and very little else.”

Television plays a central role in this disheartening drift, both in its programming and as a window into the wider world.

Nor is it an accident that the refusal to accept facts if we dislike the source is growing at a time when the U.S. finds itself embroiled in a divisive war, just as trust in authority was shaken during the Vietnam-Watergate era.

Unlike “The X-Files” and its mantra to “Trust no one,” today’s twist is that people trust only those who echo and reinforce their views.

And while doubting everything sounds a bit daft, new technology and prevailing cultural trends have made doctoring “reality” more common than ever, feeding this paranoia.

Think about so-called “reality TV,” exposed as a misnomer yet again last week, in a Los Angeles Times column reminding us just how scripted the genre really is. No one raises any call for a congressional investigation, however, as they did with Janet Jackson’s breast. In fact, it’s hard to get anyone to raise an eyebrow.

Documentaries have been tainted too, from the showmanship of Michael Moore’s works to “Fahrenheit 911” imitators on both sides of the political aisle. Now that it’s been demonstrated the format can be a major moneymaker, fudged facts and blurred lines look like a small price to pay.

The news media fares no better, wounded by failings that have provided grist for the self-serving rantings of talkradio hosts, who urge like-minded listeners to dismiss anyone that doesn’t parrot their views.

So you don’t like the election results? They must be fixed. Don’t want to think President Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard? Then use CBS’ apparently forged documents to completely discount an otherwise plausible story.

Even pictures are no longer worth 1,000 words. It’s been a decade since Newsweek manipulated a cover image of O.J. Simpson to make him look more menacing, and that technology only keeps improving. Last year a photographer at the aforementioned Times was fired for combining elements from two shots in a front-page photo from Iraq.

Against this backdrop it’s no wonder that reporters finished near the bottom of a Gallup survey ranking professions in terms of honesty and ethical standards, below bankers and auto mechanics.

Little is immune from distrust in an era of frayed faith, including the national pastime. Suddenly, all those tape-measure home runs appear less admirable when it’s possible the batter was juiced on steroids.

As for Hollywood glamour, is that starlet’s ageless beauty as enviable when tabloids titter over every nip and tuck that maintains the illusion?

Put it all together and healthy skepticism sadly morphs into cynicism.

In a sense, reality TV provides the perfect symbol for such times, a form of entertainment whose very title is understood — tacitly or consciously — to be at best imprecise, at worst a lie.

Fortunately for purveyors of the genre, appreciating a magic act doesn’t mean accepting that a guy can levitate an elephant, simply not caring precisely how the trick is accomplished.

It’s hard not to wonder, though, what we lose as our institutions keep getting compromised, from sports to politics to the news itself. Because the only thing worse than a society that believes in everything, I’d argue, is one that believes in nothing.

Media Myopia, Part II: Shoddy reporting certainly doesn’t help win the media the public’s trust, and we’ve seen a lot of it in the “death of network news” hand-wringing over the exits of anchor Tom Brokaw and soon Dan Rather.

I don’t profess to know how long network news will endure, but I’d respect print coverage significantly more if it carried at least an acknowledgement of that medium’s own circulation woes.

With rare exceptions, newspapers weighing in on TV news’ potential demise have ignored their declines in circulation, driven by factors that mirror the erosion of evening-news ratings — namely, an explosion of options, from cable to the Internet.

For that matter, the same equation applies to articles about “the death of movie-going,” citing diminished theater attendance while underplaying the impact of the DVD market.

Ambitious editors seldom like to let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story, but this one actually might be better if they put it on steroids and swung for the fences.

I can see the headline now: “The Death of Everything.”

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