Drown­ing in hype and hys­te­ria

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRU­DEN

Mem­o­ries can last for­ever. Amer­i­cans of a cer­tain age re­mem­ber where they were when they heard the news that John F. Kennedy was dead, slain by an as­sas­sin. Most people re­mem­ber watch­ing Neil Arm­strong take man’s first steps on the moon, and re­mem­ber who they were with. The top­pling of the World Trade Cen­ter on Sept. 11, 2001, a date that lives in in­famy with Dec. 7, 1941, is etched in the mem­ory of ev­ery­one with a tele­vi­sion set.

So where were you when you heard that Michael Sam had fi­nally been drafted in the sev­enth round of the an­nual player draft by the Na­tional Foot­ball League? Mark it well. Time mag­a­zine says his­tory will look back on it “as the mo­ment pro­fes­sional sports changed for­ever.” Break­ing the sodomy bar­rier “wasn’t just a foot­ball de­ci­sion, it was his­tory in the mak­ing.”

Mr. Sam, who is fin­ish­ing his ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri, knows a lot more than how to sack a quar­ter­back. He knows how to suck the last few kilo­bytes out of his 15 min­utes of fame. For three days, the hype huck­sters kept the world — or at least them­selves — agog with the ques­tion of the age: Will they or won’t they draft the man who would be “the first openly gay player in the NFL”? The morn­ing af­ter “they” fi­nally did, Mr. Sam got a bonus minute of celebrity, com­plain­ing that mak­ing him wait un­til the sev­en­thround se­lec­tion was cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment. “I should have gone in the third or fourth round.”

But once pro­fes­sional sports was changed for­ever, or at least un­til the world moved into the next cy­cle of what passes for news, the pas­sion­ate pur­suit of trash and trivia re­sumed briskly to other epochal events. The “in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters” (not so long ago a news­pa­per re­porter was an “in­ves­ti­ga­tor” by def­i­ni­tion) have de­camped to Twit­ter, where they dis­till the re­sults of ar­du­ous and ex­pen­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tions to 140 char­ac­ters. This works out to about 10 to 15 words, which you might think is not very many, but any more than that would ex­haust the at­ten­tion span of many In­ter­net read­ers. “News” has to be­come gos­sip merely to sur­vive. It’s the way, as Michael Sam demon­strates, to ex­tend “the life of the nar­ra­tive.”

This has killed the tra­di­tional edited gos­sip col­umn in Wash­ing­ton. Diana McLel­lan set the stan­dard many news cy­cles ago with the “Ear,” first in the old Wash­ing­ton Star and then in The Wash­ing­ton Post and fi­nally in The Wash­ing­ton Times. Wit as well as hu­mor, that ex­ceed­ingly rare com­bi­na­tion, made it the morn­ing’s first read for thou­sands.

But not ev­ery­one fishes suc­cess­fully deep in the shal­lows, and can make a feast of the catch. “Gos­sip hasn’t gone away,” says Patrick Gavin, once a gos­sip­meis­ter him­self, in The Wash­ing­ton Post. “It’s gone main­stream.” In­deed, with the death of the crusty old city edi­tor who wouldn’t let a re­porter get by with much, gos­sip, of­ten ir­re­spon­si­ble, has drifted freely into se­ri­ous news. The In­ter­net, with its pro­lif­er­a­tion of “news” sites, spawns more re­porters than sources, more writ­ers than read­ers.

Now that it’s too late to do any­thing about it, there’s a dawn­ing recog­ni­tion in the me­dia that it’s out of con­trol, drown­ing in hype and hys­te­ria for hav­ing killed pri­vacy in Amer­ica. Mon­ica Lewin­sky’s con­fes­sional in Van­ity Fair, just in time to launch Hil­lary’s sec­ond pres­i­den­tial bal­loon, has prompted a search for vil­lains among, in Tina Brown’s rec­ol­lec­tion, “the whole buzzing swarm” of “gos­sip-in­dus­try flesh flies, feast­ing on the en­trails.” She blames the Drudge Re­port and Fox News, hap­pily obliv­i­ous of her own reign as the de­struc­tive “queen of buzz,” blow­ing mil­lions and mil­lions of dol­lars in an at­tempt to patch up a ca­daver at Newsweek mag­a­zine. De­spite ap­ply­ing of a pound of rouge and a sack of plas­ter, she never could get it to walk.

Miss Brown and her like-minded lib­eral and left col­leagues are de­spon­dent not that the me­dia is bang­ing out of con­trol, but that it got out of their con­trol. The con­ser­va­tives get to shout now as loud as the lib­er­als. “The as­cen­dant me­dia that looked down on [Matt Drudge] has been pretty much de­stroyed,” she writes in the Daily Beast. She grum­bles that no one would have be­lieved that the Gra­ham fam­ily would no longer own The Wash­ing­ton Post, that the two “mighty” news­magazines would be re­duced to a shadow and a corpse, and “the jug­ger­naut CNN” would be chas­ing Fox News.

Now that hype and hys­te­ria has be­come the lingua franca of the age, Michael Sam, like ev­ery­one else in the tower of bab­ble, whis­tles it flu­ently. You just put your lips to­gether and blow. Wes­ley Pru­den is edi­tor emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Matt Drudge

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