Sam Uretsky

Funny Papers

It’s hard to tell if this is life imitating art or the other way around, but for starters, Brenda Starr, is back at the Flash. (The Brenda Starr comic strip was first published in 1940, so if Brenda was 20 when she got the job, she would be about the same age as Helen Thomas, who is still working for Hearst, covering the White House, so the premise isn’t that irrational.) The people who are responsible for recounting Brenda’s adventures have never been sticklers for continuity, but some time ago, she left the Flash, then was rehired as editor in chief, got involved in some personal stuff (Brenda gets more personal days than just about anybody), got furloughed, went to India, and just came back to the Flash with no loss of pay or seniority. At a time when print journalism is struggling, newspapers are closing or going to a web-only format, and even the Washington Post and New York Times are cutting their newsroom staffs, Brenda has tenure.

But, while Brenda was away, the Flash went to free distribution to increase circulation, and hired a bunch of bloggers, who have nothing but disdain for the old media. While Brenda and one of the bloggers were working on a story about an unidentified corpse pulled from the river, they got an e-mail tip about the dead man’s identity. Brenda waited to confirm the report, but the blogger rushed to spread the rumor, and now the Flash is forced to print a front-page mea culpa.

About the same time, John Koblin, a reporter for the New York Observer, went to Twitter and wrote: “anyone hearing about NYT bombshell on Paterson? Heard big, damaging story comin (sic). been working for weeks, but still not published yet.”

David Paterson is the governor of New York State. He was lieutenant governor and moved up when Eliot Spitzer, the governor, resigned after a sex scandal. Gov. Paterson is running for re-election, although the polls are unfavorable and he has been advised to drop out of the race. in favor of a more popular candidate. The New York Times apparently is doing a serious review of Mr. Paterson’s life and career, which is appropriate for any political candidate. Mr. Paterson confessed to some sexual indiscretions shortly after assuming the Governor’s office, presumably to put any rumors to rest. Mr. Koblin’s tweet appears to have been a legitimate request for information. Actually, according to a time-line prepared by Mr. Koblin for the Observer’s web site, the story began on Jan. 20, when the New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid, published a gossip item saying that Gov. Paterson had been “involve(d in) an alleged encounter 10 weeks ago between Paterson and an unidentified woman in a utility closet at the governor’s mansion in Albany ...” On Feb. 5, the New York Daily News, which competes directly with the Post, reported “The rumor mill has been running overtime in recent weeks about Paterson and the possibility that a major newspaper is about to drop a bombshell story about his personal life ...” That day, Mr. Koblin published his tweet. He has since prepared a story for the Observer discussing the fake-news cycle, about how the rumor, and it was no more than that, was copied and repeated by major news gather organizations within and beyond New York State.

Aside from the pressure on Gov. Paterson, the Times, which should have innocent bystander status, has come under fire for not publishing a confirmation or retraction of the rumors. The Times announced it is practicing old-time, Brenda-Starr journalism, and has no intention to publish anything until the job is complete. The Times isn’t perfect, heaven knows; this is the paper that published Jayson Blair’s fictions, and worse, Judith Miller’s reports from the Bush White House that gave credibility to the Iraq invasion. The Times’ web site has been known to rush a story in order to keep up with the competition but, overall, the paper still makes a sincere effort.

In the comics pages, the Flash prints a front-page headline “We Regret The Error.” In real life, the New York Post (Feb 9) front-paged “I Did Not Have Sex With That Woman” with a picture of Gov. Paterson.

In a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, respondents with the greatest knowledge of current events were regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both on Comedy Central. Those at the bottom got their information from network morning news, local news shows, and Fox News. For an informed electorate, we’re better off with comics and comic strips than with Fox.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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