The Usual Suspects, Pleading for Balance in the Court of Hype

President Bush with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G-8 summit. Blair last week called the media a
President Bush with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G-8 summit. Blair last week called the media a "feral beast" but had few complaints about the press early in his tenure, when he was termed a Clintonesque reformer. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

Journalists are getting whacked from every side, poked in the eye by public figures disgusted with what passes for news these days.

Not that we don't deserve it. But those assuming the mantle of cultural critic have -- not surprisingly -- their own self-justifying agendas.

Tony Blair chastised the media last week as a "feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. . . . We are all being dragged down by the way media and public life interact."

Joining the prime minister with his own indictment: O.J. Simpson. You would think being held liable in civil court for a pair of brutal murders might undermine one's moral stature, but Simpson told the Associated Press: "When Paris Hilton was going to jail last week, more people knew about that than knew that we were sending people into space that day. It has replaced what is real news. There was always a place for it, but it was [gossip writer] Rona Barrett. Now it is the equivalent of Edward R. Murrow reporting it today."

O.J. invoking Murrow -- take a moment to digest that.

And America's party girl herself, after getting prematurely sprung from jail and then returned to the slammer, pronounced herself "shocked" at all the attention lavished on her ordeal. Hilton expressed the fervent wish that "the media will focus on more important things like the men and women serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world." If Hilton has ever uttered the word Iraq before, it has escaped my notice.

Step right up, folks! Here's a baseball bat! If you're unhappy with your coverage, just take a swing!

What's galling, though, is that there's an element of truth in each critique.

Blair's assessment of "unraveling standards" is the most serious. Journalists are lusting after "impact," he says. "Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. . . . A problem is 'a crisis.' A setback is a policy 'in tatters.' A criticism, 'a savage attack.' "

That kind of hype is hardly unknown. But keep in mind that Blair is leaving office as a deeply unpopular politician, seen as having led Britain into war with what BBC described as "sexed-up" dossiers and finessing the many miscalculations in Iraq with American-style spin. He had little complaint about the press in the early years of his tenure, when even Rupert Murdoch's outlets joined in portraying him as a dashing, Clintonesque reformer.

In fact, for all the excesses of the British press that branded him "Bush's poodle," the case against Blair was based on serious, substantive reporting. Perhaps Blair is still annoyed at the BBC and the Guardian for disclosing this month that he killed a government investigation into a British arms merchant's payment of $1 billion to Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar. Bloody Fleet Streeters!

Simpson did usher in the era of sensationalized trials, in which people even tangentially associated with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were made into celebrities or awarded their own talk shows. But this is a remorseless man who was perfectly happy to take big media bucks for a sickening book and television special, "If I Did It," until his "hypothetical" depiction of the killings proved too much even for the Fox network.

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