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Jewish World Review Aug. 27, 1999 /15 Elul, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Junk journalism -- WHILE THE REST OF THE COUNTRY was relaxing at the beach, hiking in the mountains, or obsessing about the second annual Sosa-McGwire home-run derby, the political press corps last week was engaged in its favorite pastime: Creating news where there is none. For months, totally unsubstantiated rumors about Texas Gov. George W. Bush and drugs have circulated among political insiders, provoking several news organizations to launch their own investigations.

And what have they found?

Absolutely nothing. Not a single, credible source for any of the stories; indeed, no actual story.

But despite the dearth of evidence, or even a specific allegation, the news media have gone wild with speculation about whether Bush used cocaine some time in his past. The topic has become fodder for late-night TV jokes and a staple of the 24-hour cable shows that have helped turn TV news into an entertainment medium. No wonder Americans have become so cynical about the news industry.

In the past, journalistic ethics would have prevented reporters from running with these rumors. At the very least, any reputable news organization would have required that someone who claimed firsthand knowledge be identified as the source of an accusation before deciding to print or air a story about a politician's alleged misbehavior or moral lapse. But no more. Journalists have moved beyond the somewhat dicey practice of relying on anonymous sources to having no sources at all, save each other.

Once a story has appeared in print or aired on TV -- even if it happens to be a trashy tabloid newspaper or program -- the mainstream press feels free to repeat it. In fact, not to run with a story that has moved into general circulation -- no matter through what backdoor means -- is dangerous in an industry that has become increasingly focused on ratings. Fewer people today read newspapers or watch television news than in the past, which has led to a fierce competition for the remaining audience.

The news business has become just that -- a business whose prime motivation is to sell its product. It wouldn't be so bad if reporters, editors and producers would admit that what they're after is market share. Instead, they couch everything in terms of 'the search for truth' and 'the public's right to know.' Hogwash. A slow news week and a Republican primary contest that seemed all-but-decided more than a year before the election were excuse enough for most news organizations to begin peddling gossip about the GOP front-runner.

Politics has become nothing more than a horse race to most news organizations. So long as the race remains close, reporters have something interesting to write about. But when one candidate outdistances his opposition too far -- as Bush has in both public opinion polls and money raised -- the incentive becomes to close the gap, even if it means repeating rumors that no one can quite trace to a source.

Bush has said he won't play the game of shooting down every wild allegation about his past and that he's said all he intends to about his putative drug use -- namely, that he meets the government's own standard for fitness to serve. But the pressure is on to say more, from both his political opponents and some supporters. It's hard to imagine what he could say that would help him, however. Admitting former drug use -- even if it took place some 25 years ago or earlier -- could hardly be a plus for a Republican candidate.

And if he didn't use drugs and denies the rumors outright, some portion of the public will believe that he did, anyway, simply because they read so in the newspapers or heard about it on the news.

Bush's best hope is that the reporters will tire of repeating tales based solely on innuendo and that the issue fades. Who knows, with the president back from vacation and Congress back in session next week, maybe political reporters will go back to reporting real news rather than making up their own.

Linda Chavez Archives


©1999, Creators Syndicate