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The Impact of Scandal-Mongering

THE quantity of scandal in the headlines these days raises questions not only about the behavior of public figures but the ethics of those who so eagerly report on them.

"Sleaze" is generally thought of as something nobody, absolutely nobody, would touch with a 10-foot pole. The president can barely sputter out the word. And all self-respecting journalists deplore sleaze as the muck at the bottom of their profession.

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Then why is there so much sleaze about? It seems that politicians and other public figures sling sleaze only when sleaze is slung at them, and journalists report sleaze only when less fastidious competitors bring the subject up and it becomes "news." Sleaze is always the other fellow's fault.

And so, regretfully, out of a duty to inform their readers - the things you have to do to live up to the First Amendment - Time and Newsweek both put Woody Allen and Mia Farrow on their covers and devoted eight pages each to the story. Did this story, that week, outweigh the Middle East peace negotiations? Or a threatened second showdown with Iraq? Or the continuing slaughter in Bosnia?

The two magazines gave these combined topics less than one-third of the space allotted to Allen and Farrow. The Fergie scandal received more attention than famine in Somalia. Stand by for the Princess Di tapes.

It is the nature of sleaze that it can all be written on a very small spitball. The "exclusive" interviews, the detailed "in-depth" reports on Woody, Mia, or, for that matter, the "inside stories" from the entire staff of Buckingham Palace promise so much more than they deliver.

And yet as summer draws to a close, the sleaze oozes across front pages and drips off television screens. The dirty little secret is that somebody likes sleaze, and in spite of general cries of revulsion, a lot of somebodies are touching sleaze with considerably less than a 10-foot pole.

A low-cost product with high markup, sleaze knows no recession. Little wonder that it has moved out of the back alleys of journalism to boost the newsstand sales and viewer ratings of respectable newspapers, magazines, and television stations. Is an ever-broader public accepting sleaze as a part of its information need while continuing to criticize the morals of the scandal-makers and the greed of the scandal-mongers?

But can the scandal-consumers claim clean hands themselves? What justification is there for customers who indulge in the dubious practice of tut-tutting while licking their lips?

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Amid the snickering, the damage of sleaze gets underestimated. Sleaze doesn't just damages the lives of the people it spatters. It also makes hypocrites of those who gather to smirk under the pretense of enjoying a new dispensation of frankness. Sleaze can contribute to a shameful reversal of priorities, making history 1992 a footnote to the ongoing headlines of scandal.

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