The fool who leads, or the fool who follows…
web posted August 1998
Last month three people decided to play a trick on the world. Mike and Diane told the world that they would be the first couple to lose their virginity on the World Wide Web. On the web site set up expressly for their first experience, Diane told the world that the beauty of the web's first childbirth made her realize that showing the actual beginning of the process would be just as beautiful.
The story immediately went across the web and into the mainstream media. Those opposed to the idea weighed in on the immorality of the plan, while those in support declared it a First Amendment issue.
Unfortunately for all making hay out of Mike and Diane, they turned out not to be 18 nor virgins. In fact, they didn't even have any plans to have sex at all.
Mike turned out to be out-of-work actor Ty Taylor, 23, from Alabama, but Diane would not reveal her age to reporters, saying, "This is Hollywood," but did admit she was Michelle Parma from Texas.
Claiming that they wanted to promote free speech and the "biggest public service announcement ever" about safe sex and abstinence, Taylor and Parma were hired hoping it was going their big break.
As angry reporters called Ken Tipton, the man responsible for the Internet drama, a fraud and a liar and his plans a "con," he explained it was simply a soap opera which would have ended the two choosing abstinence until marriage.
The real story here wasn't Tipton's scheme to earn money from people not having sex (brilliant considering how much money is made from people actually having it), but how willingly gullible the media was in spreading the news of this scheme.
If this has been the only time that the media was guilty of being fooled badly because they failed to do some basic research I would have laughed this incident off as one man's clever War of the Worlds-esque drama. The problem, however, is that the mainstream media is guilty of a consistent under-researching of stories before delivering the goods.
Over the past few months we've been deluged with stories about this being the "hottest summer ever," global warming in general, the expense and length of Ken Starr's investigation of U.S. president Bill Clinton, the alleged use of nerve gas against American deserters in Vietnam, the "proven link between secondhand smoke and cancer," Microsoft, the official version of Clinton's visit to China...and those are merely items that we've run in this month's Tidbits.
The hottest summer ever? Only if you don't look at all of the data.
Global warming? More scientists do not believe in it than do and more are converted daily.
Ken Starr? If a person refused to aid in your investigation and blocked it at every avenue, wouldn't you be taking a long time?
Nerve gas? How about checking the background of your primary witness.
Secondhand smoke? Read the original research and find out how the EPA lowered the minimum numbers needed to establish a link between secondhand smoke and cancer, contrary to established scientific methods.
Microsoft? Why not tell how decisions are made to launch antitrust actions, the complete arbitrariness of the procedure.
Clinton in China? That famous television debate saw frequent signal dropouts across China at certain points, not to mention that repression occurred while Clinton was there.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for a return to the "objective" reporting seen in the early days of this century, a journalism which saw nothing of possible controversy published in case an advertiser or segment of the population was insulted, leading to a loss of circulation. That form of journalism was born out of newspaper owners' desire to get the maximum number of readers, often creating bland newspapers and journalists who feared taking a stand. Personally, I'd rather have newspapers take a liberal stand than none at all. In the former, at least some time and some thought had to go into being wrong.
So why do reporters so consistently under research their stories these days? There are likely a number of reasons, but the simplest may be sheer laziness and bias combined. Why do the legwork when the story fits into what you believe and the hard work has been done for you?
By not checking their facts, reporters have subjected us to years of tedious reporting banging the same drums. To this day we still hear Paul Ehrlich's claims that the world is running out of time because of overpopulation, pollution, and scarcity of resources, despite the fact that the late Julian Simon destroyed those arguments. Whose name do you hear in the media more often?
Is it any real surprise that more than half of the American public, and quite probably the same percentage north of the border in Canada, believe that news reporting is often just plain wrong? It might explain why a growing number of people are turning to alternative information sources, whether on television, radio or the Internet to get what they hope is reliable information.
Though it is a knife in the heart of many journalists to hear it, news is like any other commodity in today's society. If people don't want something then they will seek something else out to replace it. ABC and Peter Jennings' loss is Fox News and Matt Drudge's gain.
Ultimately, this may have actually been quite a useful public service announcement after all.
Thanks for reading,
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