Crying wolf on the Web

Hyperbole rules as sites swing for rhetorical fences

Already well established as an astute observer of TV news, Jon Stewart turned a satirical eye toward various Internet sites last week — catching them with their hyperbole up and their pants down.

On “The Daily Show” segment, Stewart mused on the phenomenon of Web headlines dramatically overstating events — blaring that Stewart “destroys” Fox News Channel, say, or that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow “eviscerates” a guest during an interview.

Stewart acutely identified one of the more irksome aspects of Web reporting — a tabloid tendency that has transformed us into a society of boys and girls who seem to feel increasingly compelled to cry wolf.

Indulgence in this particular affliction, by the way, is one of the few things that left-leaning and right-leaning commentators and websites appear to share. By now, anybody with Web access must have experienced clicking on a Drudge Report or Huffington Post link, only to be disappointed that the circumstances implied by the headline weren’t nearly as scandalous, astonishing or salacious as promised.

The current system largely caters to those with no memory or conscience. In back-to-back items this week, for example, came up with “Worst Network Pilot Season for Women” and “Worst Super Bowl Commercials Ever.”

Really? Ever?

From a critical perspective, this can feed the temptation to fall into line and rhetorically swing for the fences. After all, most critics and pundits didn’t necessarily begin pontificating because it was the quickest path to riches (there are more reliable ways to achieve that) but because of a near-pathological desire to share their opinions with the world.

As a critic, the problem is that once you’ve watched enough movies or TV shows, labeling one even among the worst you’ve ever seen — or the best, for that matter — is really saying something. Rarely does anything genuinely rise to the level of “best” or “worst,” “unprecedented” or “first,” yet those terms crop up all the time — oftentimes in the work of reporters, bloggers or critics who haven’t been at it long enough to experience the sense of deja vu that most press releases evoke.

The need to say something sweeping or provocative can become especially evident when people write about events that happen every year. Award shows regularly yield gripes that they were boring, and the acceptance speeches were windy and self-indulgent.

Yet this hardly qualifies as a newsflash to regular viewers of such showcases, as well as anybody in Hollywood who must put on a tuxedo or evening gown more than once a year. Awards are by their very nature boring and self-indulgent. The real question to be gnawed upon is whether they’re any more or less so than in the past.

Providing such context, however, frequently yields measured responses. Most of the time, things are merely a little bit better or a little bit worse. And who’s going to pick up a link saying that?

As Stewart put it in a segment he titled “The Blogs Must Be Crazy,” “It’s almost as if these headlines are freakishly out of proportion to the content contained within them, designed to take relatively benign interactions and recast them as murderous feuds.”

Not so much crazy as shrewd, actually — and willing to engage in hype up to the precipice of becoming misleading. It’s all fine from a marketing perspective, certainly, but without sounding too snotty about it, it’s corrosive to journalism. Think of it as sacrificing accuracy on the altar of entertainment.

I tried to explain this years ago to a then-Los Angeles Times editor who was excited about the prospect of pitching a story of mine to the front page. My concern was that it was possible to “sell” so enthusiastically as to require deviating from the truth — in the process making the uncomfortable leap from news to the equivalent of peddling vacuum cleaners.

At any rate, another Oscar ceremony is coming up, and before Steve Martin or Alec Baldwin utter word one, I feel confident saying right now — with almost absolute certainty — that this year’s awards should land somewhere between the best and worst ever.

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