Tuesday, December 31, 1996
Let's kiss excesses of 1996 goodbye

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Now that you know Elmo so well, wouldn't you like to tickle him with an assault rifle? Wouldn't you like to just get your hands around his fuzzy little red neck and squeeze?

It's not Elmo's fault, of course. He couldn't help it that his bug-eyed face was plastered across the front pages of newspapers all over the country. Elmo probably was as shocked as the next stuffed toy to find himself on the lips of Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.

He didn't ask to be on Rosie O'Donnell's show. Oprah's people called him.

He couldn't help it that innocent salesclerks were trampled by parents afraid to face Christmas morning without every item their children ordered.

Elmo didn't come out of the toy factory with an exorbitant price tag attached to his floppy leg. His suggested retail price was about $28. He is not to blame for classified ads demanding hundreds of dollars for him or the frenzy of Elmo auctions by every radio station in North America. Which resulted, of course, in more Elmo stories.

It has been that kind of year.

Wretched excess

Ordinarily, I would be the last person to blame the media. We already take the rap for everything from bathtub ring to global warming to derivatives.

If there's no obvious culprit, I say let's hold President Clinton's toe-sucking adviser Dick Morris responsible. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Oliver Stone. Let's blame anybody but good old blameless us, who are simply trying to protect the people's right to know.

But I am sorry to notice that we who like to think of ourselves as legitimate journalists are looking pretty guilty in 1996.

Can you think of a single opportunity we missed to inflate a modest event into a great big bloated newsorama? Was there any mildly interesting person we failed to discuss and investigate and photograph until the public screamed for mercy?

How else can you explain the Macarena? Or Dennis Rodman? Or the soccer moms?

Closer to home we have the breathless and continuous inquiries into the saga of the meter-plugging granny, Sylvia Stayton. (Thank heaven she has grandchildren, otherwise we would just have to call her a stubborn older adult who has a change purse and is not afraid to use it.)

Think about it. Was there a single word uttered by Martha Stewart this year that we failed to report? Would we be surprised if we found out that more high school students can rattle off the name of Madonna's baby (Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon) than can come up with the name of their senator?

Trivial pursuit

Close your eyes. What is the most enduring photo of 1996? Is it the swearing in of the third Democrat in this century elected to a second term? Is it an image of Bosnia?

I believe more of us can picture gymnast Kerri Strug in the arms of coach Bela Karolyi or John F. Kennedy Jr. kissing the hand of his bride, Carolyn Bessette.

Did we spend more time on hemp than on AZT? On O.J. than Farrakhan? Do we know just a little more about each other's breasts and prostates than is absolutely necessary?

Did we devote more attention to the weather than to air pollution? Did we spend more time talking about George Clooney's hair than we did about Bob Dole's economic plan?

Did you?

A few months ago, I was at a meeting where some local people were asked how we in the media might do a better job. Someone said, as usual, that he was sick of reading about all the bad news. One of us replied, as usual, that we can't help that. We just report the news that happens.

To which, a woman responded, ''You - you people in the media - decide what will become important to us. You decide what will become news.''

Elmo. Barbie. Madonna. Courtney Love. Dennis Rodman. Princess Di. Ebonics. The Macarena.

It has been that kind of year. On the other hand, tomorrow we get the chance to make a fresh start.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.