A million little reasons to be skeptical

BLOGGERS ON BOTH POLITICAL POLES often deride the “mainstream media,” usually motivated by a desire to discredit the messenger because they object to the message.

This isn’t to say traditional media outlets aren’t prone to errors and excesses, but for the most part, reporters and opinion journalists are committed to their craft and too pugnacious to rigorously adhere to any kind of orthodoxy. A few hundred TV critics, for example, are in town this month for their semi-annual preview of primetime fare, and I certainly find most of them trustworthy, especially when they are drinking.

Still, it doesn’t help the so-called MSM’s cause when reality shows are less than real, newsmags inflate dubious threats as a fear-induced promotional come-on and a publisher cavalierly brushes aside charges that a memoir, James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” is largely fiction. Enough ink has been expended on that last one in the last few weeks, but it’s remarkable that Oprah Winfrey would offer alibis for the perp whose work she propelled onto bestseller lists instead of expressing outrage over being duped.

All of these related threads, coupled with the journalistic scandals of recent years, feed a corrosive sense that readers and viewers shouldn’t believe what they read and see. As with most things, though, a little skepticism is healthy, and utter resistance to new ideas or contrary information merely hastens the world’s transformation into a modern-day Tower of Babel.

TO ASSIST IN SIFTING THROUGH the daily media barrage, then, here’s a handy guide to help recognize stories and practices that should always trigger B.S. detectors. So while news outlets generally endeavor to convey fact, not fiction, it’s wise to be doubly skeptical of…

  • Any article that insists networks or studios are dramatically overhauling the way they do business, particularly when the alleged revolution requires a firm stand in negotiations with A-list talent. Like election pledges, these pronouncements recur every few years, ignoring that somebody is always desperate enough to ante up. Pay no attention to the men and women in front of the curtains. They’re just trying to save their jobs.

  • Any TV newsmagazine segment between now and the Oscars that promises to reveal “the real truth about gay cowboys.”

  • Any exclusive movie cover story in Newsweek or Time that isn’t written by a critic but throws around words like “spectacular,” “dazzling” and “masterpiece,” marking the unsavory nexus where pumping newsstand sales and journalism collide.

  • Any women’s magazine trend article that quotes subjects only by their first names and repeatedly uses the phrase “many women” in lieu of any hard data.

  • Any movie for which a studio feels compelled to use a Larry King quote in its ads.

  • Any politician who, in the run-up to an election, threatens a media sector (Hollywood, gaming, porn) to “clean up your act, or we will.” Both Republicans and Democrats play this game, and there’s invariably far more bluster than action.

  • Any update on cable news labeled a “news alert” or “developing story.” Odds are nothing new has happened in hours, if not days.

  • Any story about a gadget that’s going to “change everything.” Reporters churn these out with impunity, secure in knowing that it’s unlikely anyone will call them on it should said device fizzle.

  • Any column in this space completed less than 12 hours after leaving a Golden Globes party.

FOR THE RECORD: Despite the campy character names (Venis Envy? Miss Conduct?) and costumes that adorn participants in the A&E series “Rollergirls,” irate fans protested that contrary to my review, game play in modern roller-derby leagues is indeed for real, unlike the staged version of my youth.

Foremost, I apologize to the many players who emailed me — including Winona Fighter, Fairy Brutal, Sugartastic and Knuckles Sandovitch — primarily because I am afraid of them. Remember, John Stossel ticked off a wrestler who boxed his ears two decades ago, and the ABC newsman has been irritating ever since.

The only excuse I can offer roller-derby enthusiasts is that too much exposure to pro wrestling and reality TV has dulled my sense of irony and appreciation for fringe sports, especially when the athletes are racing around a track, badly edited, and wearing Catholic schoolgirl outfits.

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