The dumbing down of America via the mainstream media's commercialization of news has reached unprecedented levels of irresponsibility. Over the past three weeks, a terrible rampage of random shootings of innocent and unrelated victims has plagued the Washington, D.C., area, creating a sickening fear that is largely unfamiliar to this nation. Now the assassin has made it clear in a message to authorities that "your children are not safe anywhere, at any time." This chilling warning is the kind of terrorism that can erode our very soul ... if we allow it.

The media should be strategically working to investigate, synthesize, and disseminate information that is constructive to the mission of protecting the public. Instead, the majority of the news networks are literally camped at the various sites throughout Montgomery County, Maryland, where many of the shootings took place, waiting for bits of news that emerge during scheduled press conferences. The balance of the broadcasts is spent with endless speculation by different law-enforcement professionals, criminologists, psychologists, and other talking heads who opine all over the map about the motive, logistics, and possible strategies of the sniper or snipers.

This is clearly not news. The only value exists on the profit-and-loss statements of these networks. This is the cheapest kind of media production and is just compelling enough to pass for news because the public is hungry for information. The truth is, there is very little information to be had. The intelligence gathered to date is at risk with the media precisely because of the way they handle it. There is no plan, no sensitivity toward the information, and no vested effort on the media's part to actually solve these despicable crimes. The primary objective is to sensationalize as much as possible to attract viewers and improve ratings. This would be obvious if it were but a few culprits in this, but all the networks, including Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, are equally guilty.

The Quad Cities own ABC affiliate, WQAD, behaved with glaring irresponsibility last Sunday night during the 10 p.m. news broadcast. The opening headline, "Terrorism hits the Quad Cities," was repeated several times as news, showing citizens traumatized and possibly injured, misleading viewers from the onset. The story was actually about drills to prepare in the event such horror would occur here. The only nugget of useful information gleaned from this "exclusive" coverage was the fact that all of the various response units used varying radio frequencies and equipment, which according to Sherrif Grchan may impede response time. How about digging into that issue as news? Why are the frequencies different? Is this typical of other communities? What have other communities done to solve this problem? None of this information was forthcoming. The presentation was pure sensationalism and thoroughly insulting.

Day in and out, viewers of network news are inundated with frivolous information, or pure speculation posing as real news, while real news goes unreported and ignored by the very organizations that have been entrusted to inform the public and act as the proverbial watchdog, the fourth estate in fact, charged with the protection of freedoms and democracy every bit as much as the presidential administration, the legislature, and the judicial branch of our government. But because of commercialization, the mainstream media is failing the public to an alarming degree. The media's lack of responsibility is as much a part of the systemic problems of corruption and proliferation of special interests prevailing in our country as any body of politicians. Because without the media's cooperation, or at a minimum its ignoring of such matters, much of it would not be possible.

This country has a major election coming up in several weeks, an administration that is seriously contemplating war with Iraq, an alarming admission by North Korea that it has nuclear capability, and an economy in jeopardy, to name just four broad issues that should be covered in-depth but are replaced with speculation about one killer near the nation's capital. Talk about rewarding bad behavior. Meanwhile, voters will go to the polls with very little information, which is just the way the Republican and Democratic parties prefer it. This kind of ignorance discourages participation and perpetuates the disenfranchisement citizens and voters feel.

The truth is that the media is motivated by ratings. If Americans refused to watch its drivel, deliberately tuning out until substantive information was forthcoming, we could force a meaningful change. It means defining for ourselves what we consider news versus entertainment or fluff. I believe Americans are smart enough to do just that, in spite of the massive effort to dumb us down.

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