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Jewish World Review July 17, 2003/ 17 Tamuz, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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The media, as usual, is the message | Out with the old, in with the new. The wheel of change has been spinning merrily during the long, hot (and often wet) summer. That's especially true for those who make the news. The media is the message.

There's a new man at the helm of the New York Times. Arthur Sulzberger is counting on Bill Keller to staunch the blood oozing from the wounds inflicted by the worst scandal in the paper's history (unless you count Walter Duranty's relentless whitewash of Soviet brutality in the 1930s, for which he won at Pulitzer Prize).

"I've been shot with more arrows than Custer's horse," Howell Raines, deposed as executive editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, told Charlie Rose in his first television interview. The unkindest arrow of all, of course, was from the publisher's quiver, forcing him out for doing what he thought was his mandate to "shake up a 'lethargic culture of complacency.'" The lethargy eventually morphed into lively aggression - against Raines.

One story that angered Raines' critics was a front page number on pop nymphet Britney Spears. He defends it as appealing to readers under 40. While his critics saw it as "dumbing down" the New York Times, Raines describes it as a "sociological" story about an industry that "picks up a sexually precocious-looking young woman, lifts her out of obscurity, elevates her to a level of wealth and acclaim, far in excess, perhaps, to her talents and then drops her like that." Sociology or bubble gum, the teenagers loved it.

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If Howell Raines wanted to give the Old Gray Lady a facelift, Bill Keller is expected to take a more holistic approach, appealing to his reporters to do "a little more savoring" of life by spending time with their families or browsing through an art gallery.

However engaging that may sound, some conservatives agree with the assessment expressed by Brent Baker of the Media Research Center: "The New York Times replaces one liberal executive editor with another one." Others, aware of Keller's reputation for professionalism, are willing to wait and see.

Over at MSNBC, talkmeister Michael Savage got canned for telling a homosexual caller, "You should only get AIDS and die." He had been hired to compete with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, although O'Reilly usually purrs when his Savage competitor howls.

Undaunted by failure, MSNBC will try again with another grunter and growler. Jesse Ventura, the onetime wrestler and governor of Minnesota, stages another reincarnation in verbal excess as he takes over his own talk show. Barbra Streisand could provide the theme song: "Send in the clowns."

The cleanest media change, literally and figuratively, took place on Monday, when Ari Fleischer said goodbye to his boss at the White House and the reporters in the White House press room.

When Ari landed at Andrews Air Force Base with President Bush after five days in Africa, he was met by a firefighter armed with a portable fire extinguisher who, in Air Force One tradition for retiring airmen, hosed him down, drenching his T-shirt and sweat pants. At first glance, or maybe at late blush, it looked as though the press secretary might have got too close to those rutting elephants in Africa.

A poll suggests that Americans would like to hose down a lot of the men and women who deliver the news, to wash away bias, a lack of respect for the public and pervasive blame-America-first instincts.

Seventy percent in a poll of 1,201 adults by the Pew Research Center say they want news organizations to show a "decidedly 'pro-American'" viewpoint. While 36 percent say the press "usually gets facts straight," 62 percent are suspicious that the press covers up its mistakes.

More than half - 51 percent - say there's liberal bias, and 26 percent say there's a tilt to the right. Most of those polled approve of the war coverage in the Middle East, and most say they're tired of Hillary Clinton, or at least reading about her.

(Well, who isn't?)

The most curious summer story of change is in entertainment television. Jordan Levin, president of WB Entertainment, described as "thinking like a teenager," announced a name change for "Tarzan and Jane." In the future it will be called merely "Tarzan" because Tarzan's too much of a hunk to be stuck with the same plain Jane. "Why would he be with only one woman?" asks Levin, who wants his sleaze to attract young, hip, sexy stars with "core traditional values." (Say what?)

If Howell Raines were still at the New York Times, this might be sociology for the front page. Bill Keller's readers under 40 may have to hunt for it.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS