By Prof. WALT BRASCH
Special to USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper
Because most media believe December 31, 1999, is the end of amillennium--although some thought of the date as the end of theworld--but mostly because they aren't able to find anything better todo with their time, the media have been creating lists.
Court TV broadcast the decade's most sensational trials; the NewYork Law Publishing Co. declared it knows who the 100 mostinfluential lawyers are. The San Francisco Examiner claims itslist of the top businesses in the Bay Area is accurate. For severalyears, most of the thousand or so computer magazines have rankedeverything from mice to monitors. Since there is only a slightcorrelation between the lists, the solution is to buy everything onthe market, then upgrade six months later. Every year, the mediasalivate all over their recently- Gapped "fine threads" to show andtell us Mr. Blackwell's snooty lists of the 10 best dressed and worstdressed celebrities. Men's Fitness magazine ranked the fittestand fattest cities, putting San Diego and Minneapolis as most fit,Philadelphia and Kansas City as least fit. In case any of the citieswere offended, they could console themselves by the Health Networkratings a couple of weeks later that placed Detroit and Fresno asleast fit, with Atlanta and Virginia Beach topping the most fitcategories.
U.S. News & World Report pretends it can accuratelyrank the best colleges in the country, Fortune magazine ranksthe most admired companies, and the annual CNN-Gallup poll tells uswho we say are the most admired men and women. This year, Bill andHillary Clinton were ranked as the most admired; runners-up were theRev. Billy Graham and Oprah Winfrey. The "most admired" lists are"chicken-and-egg" lists--the media give heavy "play" to certainpeople or institutions they think are important; we assumebecause the media give heavy play to certain people, companies, orinstitutions, they're important; the media then tell us that becausewe think the people are important, the media have to givethese people more access to the newsprint and airwaves.
Billboard gives us several weekly lists of best-sellingmusic, and the Recording Industry Association of America tracks salesfor gold and platinum records. The official lists of top-sellingbooks, heavily promoted by the media, however, have long beensuspect. In some cases, an author or publisher arranges for people togo to certain bookstores, buy hundreds of copies, return them to thepublisher which then sends them out again to distributors. In othercases, bookstore managers, stuck with dozens of extra copies of atitle that their buyers thought should have sold well but are moaningfor attention in the front of the store, have reported inflated salesto the newspapers, including The New York Times which havejust "winked and published" the results.
Because Americans are usually afraid to try something that othershaven't tried before, the sheep-dog lists herd us into what they wantus to believe are the "safe" buys. Random House/Modern Library,taking advantage of mutton-mentality, declared its list of thecentury's top 100 non-fiction titles, most of which (surprise!) werepublished by Random House or Modern Library.
Not making the "official" list were any of Ayn Rand's books, noneof which were published by Random House. Nevertheless, in a separateinternet "Reader's List," also conducted by Random House but notpromoted, three of Rand's titles were in the Top 10, possibly becausethere were no limits on how many times a reader could vote. Lastyear, the American Film Institute sent out 1500 ballots to people itthought mattered, then published the Top 100 films of all time. TheChosen 1500 named "Citizen Kane" the best film, probably because25-year-old writer-director-producer-star Orson Welles took film intoa new era, possibly because it was a film that focused upon whathappens when a good person is consumed by inner torment and the mediahe created.
TV Guide has given us several lists, including the "100Most Memorable Moments in TV History," the "100 Top TV ComedyEpisodes," and what it thinks are the "100 Greatest Music Videos EverMade" of the 19,000 produced over the past two decades. VH1 counteredwith the "Top 90 Videos of the '90s."
The three major TV networks nauseated us equally this year. CBSand TIME teamed up for the "100 Most Compelling Personalitiesof the Century." People magazine--which continually insultsour limits of tolerance by its unceasing devotion to lists of"beautiful people"--teamed with NBC to declare this year's "25 MostIntriguing" personalities. For ABC, Barbara Walters proved the mediaand the public are little more than voyeurs when she interviewedMonica Lewinsky as one of the country's "Top 10 Most FascinatingPeople of the Year." It made the National Enquirer's 36-pagefull-color spread of the century's wildest women look like an outtakefrom the Journal of Watching Grass Grow.
Any list of lists would be overwhelmed by what passes as sportslists. The 100 top golf instructors are immortalized in GolfMagazine; the NBC stations in North Dakota are selecting thatstate's all-time best basketball players. ESPN, SportsIllustrated, and thousands of newspapers, sports magazines, TVstations, and internet sites "rated" who they thought were thecentury's greatest athletes. During the regular season, theAssociated Press, USA Today, and hundreds of newspaperspretend they know enough to "rank" the nation's college sports teams.The "me-too" local newspapers and TV stations aren't far behind,speculating on the outcome of games, and giving us weekly rankings onnon-existent or frivolous criteria with a reliability that parallelsweather forecasts, the daily horoscope, and the Psychic Hotline.
And that's the problem with all the lists. Most have littlereliability or validity. The people make up the lists not for the"public's right to know," but for their own perverse sense ofnarcissistic values, believing they have the ability and power to tryto tell the masses what's important--and in which order. Even moredistressing, Americans who believe these lists probably accept mostof what government and corporate institutions tell us.
Walt Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University andan award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, and the authorof 11 books, is a contributing columnist for USAfricaonline.comand TheBlack Business Journal. His latest book is "Sex andthe Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture"