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King: Analyze news sources more carefully

POSTED: December 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

My husband was away on business, and I took the opportunity to enjoy a solitary breakfast at the Huddle House. Just me, my coffee and the newspaper.

However, I couldn't help overhearing a conversation between the waitress and three men seated at the counter. She was recounting some less than flattering gossip about Michelle Obama, and the men were nodding and adding their own remarks about the incoming president and his family.

As I was leaving I asked the waitress where she got her information. "Oh," she chirped brightly. "The Entertainment Channel," and she went on to name several of the programs and their hosts.

I don't have television so the names didn't mean much, but it was clear these individuals were not journalists or investigative reporters. They were entertainers.

My daughter and her husband are entertainers. They are paid to make people laugh, a good thing in this stressed-out society, but they are comedians, not reporters; and they don't pretend otherwise. The Entertainment Channel is not a serious news outlet.

Neither is talk radio. Furthermore, serious news outlets are an endangered species these days, none more so than the daily newspaper.

But since you are reading this, I am preaching to the converted. Congratulations and thanks. Something very important is lost when people no longer read a daily paper. The difference between the print media and its electronic counterpart is more than just how the information is received, it is how it is used and the degree to which it can be trusted.

Television is immediate and intense, but it will never have the lasting impact of a single headline. And as the tactile reality of a newspaper disappears into cyberspace, so does the accountability of its stories.
The Web is a wonderful thing, a cornucopia of information at the touch of your browser, but Web pages come and go. The information is ephemeral. Unless turned into hard copy, it exists only in cyberspace.

It can't be clipped, underlined and stored for future reference. Facts are harder to check, and it's difficult to pinpoint those responsible for misinformation.

The public's taste for unsupported gossip and unrestricted partisanship seems insatiable. Everywhere one turns, real accountability is diminishing, and it will continue to diminish as long as the line between entertainment and news is blurred.

Without an educated public capable of discerning the difference between the two, free speech becomes a tool in the hands of the unscrupulous.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little real passion for truth these days. We hear a lot about "values." One sees the Ten Commandments posted everywhere: in people's front yards, in places of business, even on the bumpers of our automobiles.

" You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

Yet many who display these words readily repeat pseudo news stories they hear on the Entertainment Channel or talk radio without giving a thought to where the news is coming from. This is sad, because a culture that does not strive for truth is a culture in decline.

"Joan," a friend said to me recently, "There are over 6 billion people in the world, and 95 percent of them are sheep. They believe whatever they are told."

I am not quite so cynical, but Americans are not analytical people.

Admittedly, I'm addicted to daily paper. I rely on newspapers (The Times and others) to keep me informed, but I certainly don't accept everything I read in print. I simply find it easier to check, and if necessary challenge, the validity of information delivered in print than that delivered electronically.

Newspapers print retractions, something I have never heard from a talk show host. Newspapers print letters from readers, often critical letters. No newspaper is infallible and, yes, they are biased. A newspaper is a business. It reflects the bias of its readers. If it didn't, it wouldn't stay in business.

My point, however, is not so much to praise newspapers, as it is to encourage people to read and to read critically. We are about to wind up an election cycle, a time of inflated rhetoric and out and out lies. Now we need to demand accountability.

It's time for Americans to become analytical. It's the time to say, "yes it's a good story, and I would like to believe it, but is it the truth?"

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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