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Media Obsession With End-of-Year Lists

by Walter M. Brasch

The sinking of the Titanic was only one step below Einstein's discovery of the theory of relativity
(AR) -- Because most media believe December 31, 1999, is the end of a millennium -- although some believe it may be the end of the world -- but mostly because they aren't able to find anything better to do with their time, the media have been creating lists.

Court TV broadcast the decade's most sensational trials; the New York Law Publishing Co. declared it knows who the 100 most influential lawyers are. The San Francisco Examiner claims its list of the top businesses in the Bay Area is accurate.

For several years, most of the thousand or so computer magazines have ranked everything from mice to monitors. Since there is only a slight correlation between the lists, the solution is to buy everything on the market, then upgrade six months later.

Every year, the media salivate all over their recently- Gapped "fine threads" to show and tell us Mr. Blackwell's snooty lists of the 10 best dressed and worst dressed celebrities. Men's Fitness magazine ranked the 25 fittest and fattest cities, putting San Diego, Minneapolis, and Seattle as most fit, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Houston as least fit.

In case any of the cities were offended, they could console themselves by the Health Network ratings a couple of weeks later that placed Detroit, Fresno, and Kansas City as least fit, with Atlanta, Virginia Beach, and Washington, D.C., topping the most fit categories.

U.S. News & World Report pretends it can accurately rank the best colleges in the country, Fortune magazine ranks the most admired companies, and the annual CNN-Gallup poll tells us who we say are the most admired men and women. This year, Bill and Hillary Clinton were ranked as the most admired; runners-up were the Rev. Billy Graham and Oprah Winfrey.

The "most admired" lists are "chicken-and-egg" lists -- the media give heavy "play" to certain people or institutions they think are important; we assume because the media give heavy play to certain people, companies, or institutions, they're important; the media then tell us that because we think the people are important, the media have to give these people more access to the newsprint and airwaves.

Billboard gives us several weekly lists of best- selling music, and the Recording Industry Association of America tracks sales for gold and platinum records.

The official lists of top-selling books, heavily promoted by the media, however, have long been suspect. In some cases, an author or publisher arranges for people to go to certain bookstores, buy hundreds of copies, return them to the publisher which then sends them out again to distributors.

In other cases, bookstore managers, stuck with dozens of extra copies of a title that their buyers thought should have sold well but are moaning for attention in the front of the store, have reported inflated sales to the newspapers, including The New York Times which have just "winked and published" the results. Because Americans are usually afraid to try something that others haven't tried before, the sheep-dog lists herd us into what they want us to believe are the "safe" buys.

Random House/Modern Library, taking advantage of mutton- mentality, declared its list of the century's top 100 non-fiction titles, most of which (surprise!) were published by Random House or Modern Library.

Not making the "official" list were any of Ayn Rand's books, none of which were published by Random House. Nevertheless, in a separate Internet "Reader's List," also conducted by Random House but not promoted, three of Rand's titles were in the Top 10, possibly because there were no limits on how many times a reader could vote.

In 1998, the American Film Institute sent out 1500 ballots to people it thought mattered, then published the Top 100 films of all time. The Chosen 1500 named "Citizen Kane" the best film, probably because 25-year-old writer-director-producer-star Orson Welles took film into a new era, possibly because it was a film that focused upon what happens when a good person is consumed by inner torment and the media he created.

TV Guide has given us several lists, declaring Elvis the "Entertainer of the Century," ahead of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Michael Jordan (yes, the athlete Michael Jordan), Johnny Carson, Katharine Hepburn, and Mickey Mouse.

Thus, Sinatra was four steps behind Elvis and four ahead of the Mouse. Among the other lists were the "100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History," the "100 Top TV Comedy Episodes," and what the magazine believes are the "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" of the 19,000 produced over the past two decades. VH1 countered with the "Top 90 Videos of the '90s."

The three major TV networks nauseated us equally this year. CBS and TIME teamed up for the "100 Most Compelling Personalities of the Century." People magazine -- which continually insults our limits of tolerance by its unceasing devotion to lists of "beautiful people" -- teamed with NBC to declare this year's "25 Most Intriguing" personalities.

For ABC, Barbara Walters proved the media and the public are little more than voyeurs when she interviewed Monica Lewinsky as one of the country's "Top 10 Most Fascinating People of the Year." It made the National Enquirer's 36-page full-color spread of the century's wildest women look like an outtake from the Journal of Watching Grass Grow .

The Associated Press, as do several other news organizations and hundreds of web sites, each year also rank the top stories. Gannett's Newseum and USA Weekend created lists of what they thought were the 100 top stories of the century, then asked the public to vote on the top 10.

More interesting than the overall rankings by the 36,000 Americans who voted were how each sex ranked historical importance. Men ranked the top five stories as the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the first person to walk on the moon, the Wright Brothers' first flight, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Women ranked the discovery of penicillin as the most important story of the century, followed by the Wright Brothers' flight, the Pearl Harbor attack, the dropping of the A-bomb, and the moon walk.

The ridiculousness of the poll, however, was reflected in the public believing that the Clinton impeachment was more important (No. 31) than the Nixon resignation (No. 39), and that the sinking of the Titanic (No. 13) was only one step below Einstein's discovery of the theory of relativity.

Einstein was named Time's outstanding person of the century, closely followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mohandas Ghandi.

Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine of the newspaper industry, presented its "Most Influential People of the 20th Century." It wasn't surprising that 13 on the list were newspaper columnists.

Any list of lists would be overwhelmed by what passes as sports lists. Thousands of newspapers, sports magazines, TV stations, and internet sites "rated" who they thought were the century's greatest athletes. The 100 top golf instructors are immortalized in Golf Magazine; the NBC stations in North Dakota selected that state's all-time best basketball players.

Sports Illustrated gave us "The 50 Greatest Sports Figures" of the century from each state, while ESPN gave us the top 100 of the past century, dribbling mini-bios for several weeks prior to naming Michael Jordan its top athlete, the day after Christmas. The Associated Press, however, declared Babe Ruth the greatest athlete.

During the regular season, the Associated Press, USA Today, and hundreds of newspapers pretend 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 on non-existent or frivolous criteria with a reliability that parallels weather forecasts, the daily horoscope, and the Psychic Hotline.

And that's the problem with all the lists. Most have little reliability or validity. The people make up the lists not for the "public's right to know," but for their own perverse sense of narcissistic values, believing they have the ability and power to try to tell the masses what's important -- and in which order.

Even more distressing, Americans who believe these lists probably accept most of what government and corporate institutions tell us.

Walt Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, and the author of 11 books

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Albion Monitor December 31, 1999 (

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