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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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Perhaps the culture of scandal helps remind us that even superstars -- NBA basketball players, UCLA football players, A-list Hollywood actors, presidents of the United States -- have human failings. Perhaps the public fall of our gods will lead us toward a more understanding, forgiving culture. But Tannen is not so sure.

"This emphasis on scandal has a corrosive effect on the human spirit," she says. "We are continually surrounded by cynicism and an atmosphere of contention. It's pervasive in politics, it has spilled over to the press and the average person takes literally what the journalists are writing. It has become demoralizing for the entire country."

So what to do? Tannen proposes, among other remedies, replacing the us-versus-them, two-sides-to-the-story news slant with a focus on a diversity of views. Instead of a Democrat and a Republican battling it out on a news show, how about three or four experts, including non-affiliated scholars?

Plate, who feels the culture of scandal is especially harmful to children, suggests that the press expend some of its energy on exploring other aspects of American life -- the life of the committed welfare worker is as important, he says, as that of the bribe-taking congressman. And he believes we should disengage from the world of superstar role models and seek a perspective on the kind of work that is truly important.

"I think you should be your own role model, conform to what you think you should be," Plate says. "But if I had to choose my role models, I'd choose some of these UCLA professors, these geneticists and doctors and social scientists who are quietly transforming the world without being on CNN, without being quoted on the front page of The New York Times. I'll choose them, not someone who can dunk a basketball."


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