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

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.

As for Hilton, has anyone ever been more adept at courting coverage for her endless antics, from nightclubbing without undies to a homemade sex tape that just happened to hit the Net as she was launching a silly reality show? Hilton even turned her legal battle over driving with a suspended license into a media extravaganza, with plenty of help from news outlets that hyperventilated over each minute development.

It's hardly her fault that the cable news channels all broke away from the announcement that Gen. Peter Pace was being dumped as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to cover her routine ride to the courthouse as if the police were chasing O.J.'s white Bronco. But Hilton has, after all, gorged on the fruits of self-created celebrity.

"I used to act dumb," she told ABC's Barbara Walters from jail. "That act is no longer cute."

At last, something we can all agree on.

Friendless No More

I can now report that there is intelligent life on Facebook.

In the two weeks since I wrote about my odyssey as an older person stumbling around the college crowd's favorite networking site, I have been "friended" by 306 people. This time, many sent actual messages rather than silent bolts from the blue.

Some were regular readers of mine; others were reporters, bloggers, college instructors and, in one case, a former White House official. One woman demanded that I cover a vaccine trial in Canada. Some "poked" me, a sort of online flirtation. One asked whether my column was a "semi-shameless ploy" to lure online buddies. (Actually, I have something better than virtual friends, called a life.)

While many say the site is invaluable for keeping up with old friends, Sharmeen (who asked that her last name be withheld) informed me that Facebook "could be arguably the greatest waste of time on the planet . . . and tends to cultivate slightly stalkerish tendencies, but it is just so darn fun." Juliette Dallas-Feeney called Facebook "horribly addicting. . . . I could spend hours looking at my friends' pictures. . . . This can cause serious problems during the school year."

Kelley Sayler mocked the daily "newsfeed" of friends' doings "because the world really needs to know that they had macaroni and cheese for lunch at 12:32 p.m. The newsfeed doesn't feed news; it feeds exhibitionism and egotism. . . . The cult of celebrity has trickled down to the masses and made us all alternately nosy and self-important."

But most of my new "friends" sent no message -- exactly what I had griped about in questioning those who want to run up their totals -- and a couple got miffed at my slowness in responding. One day after his request arrived, a blogger named David Andrew Johnson put up a headline: "Kurtz Still Not Friendly to Me."

A voice teacher wrote on my wall (I didn't even know I had a wall): "Someone on Facebook who is older than ME!" Anybody see my cane?

By the second day, Wes Clark had asked to be my friend. Was it really the retired general, or just some spinner? But the former presidential candidate soon posted his thanks on my wall.

Weirdness is not uncommon. One wannabe friend uses the name and picture of the late political strategist Lee Atwater. Another guy uses Paris Hilton for his profile photo.

A 23-year-old woman who popped up on my screen had 707 photos of herself on her page -- including some of those don't-let-future-employers-see-this shots of her making out with guys and gals. Among her many interests, she listed "being ridiculously good looking."

Until last fall, when Facebook stopped requiring that members have collegiate e-mail addresses, such images were shielded from the prying eyes of grownups. Jessie Newburn, a marketing consultant who has been examining communication among the millennial generation, says they have been photographed and fawned over since birth: "There's this 'I can do anything, say anything, post anything, write anything' attitude, with virtually no understanding of the repercussions."

Blogger Jeff Jarvis writes that "on the otherwise anonymous and pseudonymous Internet, this is a place where real identity matters: I use my name and I associate with people whom I actually know." But there is a viral quality to Facebook -- friends of those I have friended deciding to become second- or third-hand friends -- that produces plenty of interaction with strangers. Those chance encounters may be intriguing or inane, not unlike life itself.

Oh, and someone who noticed my line about my college-age daughter spurning my friend request has formed a Facebook group: "Unlike Daughter, Howard Kurtz's Mother Probably Thinks He's Cool; So Do I." At last count, it had 10 members.

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