If You Don't Know, Why Don't You Just Say So?

Dec. 21, 2004

My wife was reading a copy of The Wall Street Journal the other day. She seemed perplexed. Suddenly she turned to me and asked, "What makes the market go up and down?" "All kinds of information," I replied condescendingly. "Commodity price fluctuations. Inflation pressures. International monetary imbalances. Political tensions. Companies hitting or missing their revenue or profit projections. Widespread financial prosperity or business instability. Sometimes market ebullience and other times market eccentricities." Cathy looked at me with a disbelieving stare, put down the paper, and said, "Look, if you don't know, why don't you just say so?" I decided to flip back and forth between CNN and MSNBC to get the latest news. I spent two hours or more glued to the tube. It finally dawned on me how appropriate my wife's admonishment had been. And how profound. I watched the two rival 24-hour, all-news cable stations reporting the same events. My problem was that I was having trouble deciding which was reporting the real news and which was not. They reported in totally different ways. The newer entry, MSNBC, uses a feisty format that asks questions calculated to arouse controversial responses from pundits and from viewers. CNN, the senior citizen of all-news telecasting, appeared to be more straight-forward, less emotional, with fewer expert "talking heads" to confuse viewers. After testing my cable-news-watching endurance for an entire afternoon and evening, I am convinced that the population of Washington, is made up exclusively of former independent counsels, former prosecutors, and former defense attorneys -- talking heads with political agendas that confuse and amuse rather than inform and reform. I am also convinced that few of them agree with one another on any legal issue. I felt as if I was being fed a diet of pap called news that wasn't news at all. It was a smorgasbord of opinions camouflaged as news. It was a hodgepodge of "what ifs" presented by carefully selected "experts" with differing political agendas, whose primary assignment was to snarl at one another with bared fangs. They rarely stuck to the subject. They always found ways to segue into endless recantations of their political party lines. You and I are being subjected to new, highly controversial interpretations of our First Amendment rights. Truth demands proof. Lies don't. When truth is verified, the source often becomes the target. Standard operating procedure for political pundits is, if they can't discredit the truth, they discredit the source. My older brother Ben was a newspaper reporter and later a managing editor. At one time or another he worked for the Tonawanda News, The Buffalo News, and The Cleveland Press. He and I had a friendly rivalry that continued for years. Ben became uncommonly unbrotherly whenever I espoused my theory that, of all media, business magazines are the most accurate, most honest, and least prejudiced in reporting news. To Ben, there was only one true source of news: newspapers. Ben worked for The Cleveland Press when it was Scripps-Howard's star daily back in the 1950s and '60s. In fact, Ben was the newspaper's lead investigative reporter during the famed Sam Sheppard murder case (recently resurrected by Sam's son). Ben became volcanic whenever I chided him about how The Cleveland Press convicted Sam Sheppard by running blaring editorials on its front page espousing his guilt. Today, DNA studies seem to prove that Sam was not the murderer, which proves that good intentions and bad investigative research discover nothing but bias when they are driven by bias. Too many reporters today are guilty of digging to support preconceived conclusions rather than digging to find the truth. Too bad. As Cathy says, "If you don't know, why don't you say so?" Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and anIW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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