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Journalism as Rubbernecking

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As one who does not play or follow golf, and who doesn't know a birdie from a chickadee, I was pleased to see Phil Mickelson win the Masters. His long embrace of his ailing wife (she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer) was a moving moment. Above all, it was gratifying to see that, at least this once, as one headline writer summarized it, "The Good Guy Finishes First." Golf is not synonymous with Tiger Woods. Are you tired of hearing about Tiger?

We are drowning in salaciousness and some of us are choking on it. Like geese having our livers prepared for foie gras, we are force-fed a steady diet of infidelity, corruption, theft, drug use, violence, addiction, and sexual misconduct among public figures. Perhaps the goose is luckier. When it gets fat enough, they kill it. We consumers of American media, by contrast, seem to have no escape.

Sean Hannity FREE

Here is just a sampling of the stories we've been deluged with in the recent past:

Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey announces that he is gay and resigns amid charges of sexual harassment from a state employee.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigns after being caught patronizing expensive prostitutes.

Mark McGwire acknowledges that his homerun record was achieved by fraud as he used steroids throughout his career. The Mitchell Report names 47 others.

Michael Jackson ... well, there's too much to itemize.

Sen. Larry Craig is caught soliciting sex in an airport bathroom.

Gov. David Paterson, a few weeks after announcing his plans to run for the seat he inherited from the disgraced Spitzer, withdraws after revelations that he intervened in a domestic violence investigation to protect his employee.

Gov. Mark Sanford skips off to Argentina to see his mistress and then tells the world, at eye-glazing length, about his feelings.

Michael Vick pleads guilty to animal abuse and serves 23 months.

Rep. Charlie Rangel is admonished by the House Ethics Committee for accepting corporate gifts and steps down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Further revelations emerge of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in Europe.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit pleads guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and no contest to a felony count of assault on a police officer. He further agrees to pay restitution to the city of $1 million, to forfeit his pension and to serve 120 days in prison.

Rielle Hunter poses half-naked for GQ and establishes that she is worthy of her boyfriend, John Edwards, a leading candidate for president in 2008. Mrs. Edwards files for divorce.

Rep. Eric Massa resigns after tickle parties on Capitol Hill.

Bernard Madoff begins his prison term for conducting the largest Ponzi scheme in history, which bilked thousands of investors, including multiple charities, out of billions of dollars.

David Letterman apologizes for ... Sen. David Vitter admits ... Jack Abramoff pleads guilty to ...

There comes a point when the sheer volume of scandal coverage becomes unsettling. This is not to suggest that the press ignore these things. Of course not. But let's face it: Journalists are lazy, and scandal is so easy to cover. The stories practically write themselves. They are simple tales of good and evil, rather than unsatisfying shades of gray. The result is journalism as rubbernecking. And the more lurid the story, the longer we are saturated with it.

Being bombarded with stories of misbehavior, betrayal, criminality, and venality of every sort is not just unpleasant, it can be demoralizing. That is, if we begin to think that everybody behaves in the loutish ways some public figures do, we may lose faith in ourselves as a society. In Billy Wilder's brilliant Cold War movie "One, Two, Three," a young communist exclaims to an older apparatchik, "Is everybody corrupt?" The old fellow responds, "I don't know everybody."

Journalists scoff at the idea of reporting "good news" on the grounds that planes landing safely are not news. But stories of extraordinary courage, philanthropy, and kindness are departures from the norm, too. Hearing a bit more about those might restore our equilibrium.

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