Buzz stories are depth-defying

George Bush hit the nail on the head last week with his statement that “These are challenging times, and they’re straining the psyche of the country.”

It’s not just differing interpretations of what’s going on in Iraq that are challenging. Nor is it just who actually won or lost the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel that is straining the psyche.

Getting at the facts, let alone the truth, seems to be increasingly more difficult. Even as sources of information keep proliferating, there’s a dearth of actual insight.

The public appetite for titillation — What’s up with Baby Suri? Why did Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson split? — has outpaced its need for the facts. And the competition among news outlets of all sorts, from print icons to pajama-clad bloggers, is leading some to be more cavalier with the facts. Apparently, we don’t really need to know what actually took place or what was said, let alone in what context.

In all these stories, however silly or serious, so much is left dangling, so few questions are answered satisfactorily that more and more folks are sampling tuning out the news.

As much as Mel Gibson’s fulmination at the cops was plastered all over the media, getting at what actually happened was hard to come by.

For a week or so, there was as much coverage of Gibson’s gaffe as of the bombing in southern Lebanon. (Lebanon itself had already replaced Iraq as the big news story, even though the former was degenerating into chaos.)

Then the Gibson diversion dried up in the wake of revelations about the terror plot in Britain involving liquids on planes.

Did the American woman arrested for causing a stir on a United flight from London actually have a screwdriver and reference Al Qaeda? Some reporters said yes, some said no. Some were unsure. Nothing, apparently, is ever definitive.

Then, an even more bizarre story broke out of nowhere: A weirdo schoolteacher living in Bangkok was nabbed in connection with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

That sent the global media into a frenzy. But after nights of non-stop cable coverage of John Mark Karr, we’re still no closer to knowing if he really is a viable suspect in the murder of the child beauty queen almost 10 years ago.

Not that uncertainty deterred the cable newsies and the tabs from salivating over the scandal. (It helps that JonBenet was blonde and there’s plenty of video footage of her.) The New York Daily News ran a front-page photo of JonBenet with the one-word headline “SOLVED.” Not even a question mark.

However, as the hours passed things got more bizarre, with the suspect not only seeming to enjoy all the attention but calmly confessing that “he was with JonBenet when she died.” Did he mean in spirit or in the flesh?

And more to the point, was he even there in Colorado at Christmas 1996? His ex-wife, who hates him, says he was with his family in Alabama, and has the photos to prove it. (She hasn’t yet produced them.)

But before there was any clarity on that story it, too, was upstaged. Tom Cruise is out at Paramount, and the town is all atwitter. Did Sumner Redstone just get fed up with the star’s antics, or did the star decide to ankle for a better deal elsewhere?

That story too will come up against another onslaught: Before we have all the answers, the news media will have slipped back into solemn mode for the obligatory Katrina and 9/11 retrospectives.

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