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Readers Need A Dose Of Healthy Skepticism

Why should you read my columns? What qualifies me to give you advice? Modesty tells me not to answer. But ego tells me to pour it on. So here goes. In the prehistoric days when I went to college, my four-year full-tuition scholarship totaled $1,000, or $250 a year. To help pay for my room and board ($60 per month), I labored as a student assistant, washed dishes, and waited tables. I was paid 35 cents an hour. My years at DePauw University were sandwiched between the "grandmother of all depressions" and the "grandfather of all wars." I was a college student before air-conditioning, before television, before penicillin, and before Big Macs. Today, Im so old I can remember when grass was mowed instead of smoked. When coke was a soft drink. And pot was something you cooked in. We bought candy for pennies, ice cream cones for nickels, and went to the movies for dimes. Nobody had ever heard of credit cards, or computers, or even highways, let alone electronic superhighways. Hardware was something you bought in a corner store -- and software wasnt even a word. Early on, I was destined to be an editor. I was editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school newspaper, and my college newspaper. I worked as a newspaper reporter during the four short months between graduation and being drafted into military service. In 1946 I came home to the wonderful world of words and have resided there ever since. I have a tremendous respect for words. We are all word-dependent. We are the beneficiaries (or the victims) of the words we write, speak, hear, and read. Using the words we know has become more important than knowing the words we use. For every word at our disposal, there are a multiplicity of alternatives. Something cannot only be big, it also can be large, immense, vast, capacious, huge, bulky, massive, or whopping. The spin artists and their attorneys, for example, tell us that theres a difference between sexual intercourse and a sexual relationship. Today were being given explanations of the semantic differences between "loving" and "lusting." And between "sexual relationships" and "emotional relationships." To a writer, this abundance of words can be a virtue. And yet, a critic could argue that English is an untidy language, cluttered with a plethora of needless words. Jules Feiffer once drew a cartoon in which the down-on-his heels character observed that first he was called poor, then needy, then deprived, then underprivileged, and then disadvantaged. He concluded that although he still didnt have a dime, he sure had acquired an impressive vocabulary. It is possible to load products on a truck and deliver them to a customer without any change in the products. But it is impossible to load ideas on a page, or radio, or television and guarantee they will be received as delivered. In communicating, we code our ideas into words. We then transmit the words to our readers or listeners. The receiver must now decode the words back into ideas. What the decoded words convey is often totally different from what the sender intended. Let me give you an example: The village blacksmith hired an apprentice. He gave the young man these instructions: "When I take the horseshoe out of the fire, Ill lay it on the anvil. Then, when I nod my head, hit it with a hammer." The apprentice did what he thought he had been told to do. Now hes the village blacksmith. Today, the converging worlds of business and politics, of computers and other media have given birth to a veritable "communicopea." Is this a blessing? Or an insidious danger? Today, media clutter, hired-gun spin artists, and information leakers are doing their mischief in all media. Today, more than ever before, readers should question their information sources. I, for one, intend to do just that. I want sources that care more about innovation than sensation. I want editors who care more about communication than titillation. I want media that deliver usefulness instead of uselessness. I want news sources that are fair with their views rather first with the news, that care more about being right than wrong. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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